The recent call for age restrictions on likes and streaks on Facebook and Snapchat is long overdue, but does not go far enough. People of all ages should be protected from the psychological damage caused by likes, streaks and other online ‘reward’ mechanisms used by giant social media companies to make us all addicts.
Likes, shares, streaks and randomized feeds all operate under the same principle of causing chronic addiction. They work subconsciously and bypass our conscious defense mechanisms.
By triggering dopamine, they reward us in the same way as Heroin and other addictive substances. They also substitute false rewards for real rewards (social interaction; community engagement; play and fun), creating a cycle of instant gratification that never satiates us.
Over time, they can create a numbness and even increase the chances of someone developing depression or anxiety. As numerous studies have pointed out, the more time someone spends on social media, the more likely they are to develop a mental illness. This makes the fact that they are addictive, and therefore demand our time and attention, particularly problematic.
The inventor of the Facebook “Like” button, Leah Pearlman, has gone so far as to say that their invention ruined the internet. After leaving the company, Pearlman admitted that the like button was the worst thing he’d ever worked on, and that it fed into a vapidness of the internet in the 21st century.
At their core, likes and streaks derive from the same techniques used by casinos and major gambling companies. Users go on an app (Facebook, Snapchat and so on), and are then rewarded for their use of the app by sounds, bright colours and pinging notifications. The research into slot machines shows that these techniques are highly effective, especially when operating in a randomized fashion. In the 1930s, Harvard Researcher B.F. Skinner did a famous study on mice, where he found that randomized rewards were the key to addiction. If mice were fed a random number of pellets after pushing a button, they would keep pushing the button even if you stopped feeding them altogether. They became addicted to the action.
In the same way, humans on social media can become addicted to the ‘randomized’ nature of the news feed, the random interactions with strangers and the randomized timings of likes.
So what can be done?
If people become addicted or mentally ill because of social media use, surely it is the role of the government to step in and prevent such harm? The famous legal theorist HLA Hart once proposed that the purpose of law was to prevent harm. In the past, we prevented harm caused by driving (seatbelt laws) or food (food safety regulations).
Today’s challenges require legal solutions of the same nature. We need to regulate and ban the techniques used by social media companies that trigger addiction – the like, the streak and the randomized news feed. By doing so, we can not only free ourselves from an epidemic of mental illness among the young, but we can make people freer to determine their own lives.
This should be the ultimate purpose of new technology: to give us freedom. Not to control us, manipulate us, make us addicts and slaves to it, but to free up our time and give us more time for the real parts of life: socializing, community-building, our hobbies, loves and passions. On this measurement, social media sites are bad technologies. By contrast, we should venerate the technologies that grant us true freedom: the washing machine, the dishwasher and the automatic vacuum cleaner. These are the true heroes of the modern age.
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My book Essays in AI has been released in paperback!