I thought I was finished a couple of weeks ago making my point about our need to start relying less on technology and to start making more of an effort to escape its grasp. Then this news came in. A new study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, published in the current edition of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, has found some serious flaws in the notion that postings and likes on social media help connect people. According to the study, spending more time on social media platforms, which limits in-person interactions, is linked to a higher likelihood of at least some people feeling socially isolated.
Today, mental health problems and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults, lead study author Dr. Brian Primack says in the report. Spending time on social media may be fine for some, but increased social media use could also bring on negative health consequences for many young adults. The study notes that social isolation, defined as a lack of a sense of belonging and true engagement with others, is linked to an increased risk of illness and even death.
For the study, questionnaires were distributed to more than 1,700 U.S. adults ages 19 to 32. According to the results, people in the study, on average, spent just over an hour each day on social media and visited social media sites 30 times each week. Overall, at least 27 percent of the participants reported feeling high levels of social isolation; and the greater the social media use, the greater the feelings of social isolation.
Those who used social media for more than two hours daily were about twice as likely to report feeling high levels of social isolation. In addition, compared with people who checked social media sites fewer than nine times a week, those who visited social media sites 58 or more times a week were about three times as likely to report feeling high levels of social isolation.
While it remains unclear as to which came first – the social media use or the individuals perceived social isolation – these feelings did not seem to be alleviated by spending time online, even in supposedly social situations.
One thing seems certain, though; these young people can be expected to keep coming back for more, regardless of the risks.
As I quoted a couple of weeks ago from Albert Borgmann, Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Montana and author of Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: “Technology is not just a tool, it’s an inducement. And it’s so strong that for the most part people find themselves unable to refuse it.”
“Technology is designed to hook us that way,” Adam Alter, social psychologist and author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” recently explained to the New York Times. “Email is bottomless. Social media platforms are endless. Twitter? The feed never really ends. You could sit there 24 hours a day and you’ll never get to the end. And so you come back for more and more.”
The whole sweep of social media – from dating apps, to online shopping as well as other binge-inducing programs – needs to be viewed as addictive technologies, says Alter. They are based on a business model of being irresistible. In the past, we have tended to think of addiction as related to chemical substances. We are now in the grips of a phenomenon of behavioral addiction and it’s widespread. We’re checking our social media constantly, which disrupts work and everyday life. We’ve become obsessed with how many “likes” our Instagram photos are getting instead of where we are walking and whom we are talking to, says Alter.
Says Tim Wu, author of “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads” and a professor at Columbia University Law School, there is a dark side to this deliberate creation of technologies meant to destroy whatever is left of the public’s sense of self-regulation.
Once upon a time, inventions such as the internal-combustion engine, the zipper or the calculator were not solely intended to create some kind of habit in their users, says Wu. They were about progress, creating a new comfort or efficiency. But today a large number of the products emerging from the world of high tech are geared toward simply getting people to do things they might not otherwise do. Technology companies seem to be moving away from the creation of rewarding technologies for human enhancement and a tradition of innovations that didn’t need to be addictive to be valuable, toward technologies meant to lure people to blindly devote large amounts of time and attention to them. Some social scientists contend that business success and user addiction are now fused together.
That’s why folks like Tim Wu and Adam Alter are pushing hard to bring about cultural change and a reprogramming of our lives to create spaces that are free from addictive technology. It’s why we’re seeing the emergence of a “Tech Backlash.” It is also why the pressure is mounting in the tech world to see the deliberate engineering of behavioral addiction as an unethical practice; as well as a movement to reward firms that build technologies that augment humanity and help us do what we want, as opposed to robbing us of our precious time.
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” prominent data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher once lamented. “[And] that sucks.”
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.