Ian MacRae, Harris Eyre, Andy Keller and Sandi Chapman
Users need to know how it affects, informs and consumes them.Social media is no longer a niche product. It’s now a core part of the communications infrastructure from the global to local levels. It shapes our communication, our relationships, our work and even our brains.
We connect with friends, family, colleagues and strangers on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. We chat with people on WhatsApp, Telegram or similar platforms. If we work remotely, we talk with our colleagues on Zoom, Teams or Slack.
For many people in the United States and around the world, communication happens more often on social media than in person. It’s not just users sending information, either. The largest free social media platforms use algorithms that are specifically designed to influence users and their behavior. These platforms deliberately use techniques from psychology and neuroscience to capture our attention, play with our emotions and keep us coming back as often as possible.
The most effective social media platforms don’t show the world as it is, but a curated version of the world in a way that the algorithms think the user’s brain wants to see it. The platforms tailor the social media experience specifically to the user’s interests and behavior. Everything that you see on social media is determined by your online activity.
This can have a profound impact, because what a user reads and writes on a screen is not just something that’s happening on a device. The information you read, comment on and share shapes how your brain processes and gathers information. Your online social environment is constantly giving your brain cues about how to make sense of the world and understand people in it. If social media is your main method of communication, it shapes the chemistry and connections in your brain.
The influence of algorithms
Social media platforms adapt to the information a user gives them. Unlike a text message or a phone call that transmits information largely as it is input, social media platforms have algorithms that govern the content, style and tone of the platform. Platforms are customized based on what the algorithm thinks a unique user will like, and what it thinks that user might buy.
All of these platforms change information in ways that range from the subtle to the profound. Zoom might give your face a little airbrushing on your digital calls. Slack shows your co-workers when you are online.
Recent reporting about Facebook shows that fear and anger are deliberately built into Facebook’s information ecosystem. Intense emotions are a shortcut to activating pathways in the brain. When people are angry, they react. When they are insecure, they look for information or products that can help reduce negative emotions. Anger, conflict and anxiety are the quickest pathways to holding your brain’s attention.
The dark side of the algorithm
The algorithms are designed to pick up on the interests, preferences and information about you and your social circle. The impact is minor for most people; the platform recommends friending people you might know, and it tailors the tone and content of posts and advertisements to suit your preferences.
This can be useful when it helps local communities connect, and it makes it easier for friends, family or co-workers to chat and collaborate irrespective of physical distance.
The problem is that the social media platforms are not discerning about the types of interests they use to connect people. A social media algorithm might pick up on interests like “Islamic State” and “global caliphate” and connect people based on shared interests. This isn’t a joke: In 2018 an investigation found that Facebook’s “suggested friends” feature was a useful recruiting tool employed by terrorist networks.
This is fine for a book club or local event, but it can lead to some fairly serious problems when people with interests in armed revolution or coordinated violence are automatically shown content that solidifies their beliefs and connects them with like-minded people nearby.
Adults are responsible for their own behavior
Social media platforms are powerful digital communication tools that are useful for many people. They have benefits as well as drawbacks.
People who use social media should understand how their data is used, and how the algorithms use that data to serve up content or advertisements based on what they watch, say and do online.
If you log on to these platforms with a clear understanding of how they work, you can shape your own experience. Choose the people you want to connect with, the topics you want to discuss and the material you choose to share (or not). It’s your profile, your data and your decisions. Whether you choose to share and engage with private, political or provocative content is up to you.
But these social media platforms will try to capture more of your attention with more extreme content.
People who look for jogging tips get directed toward marathons and triathlons, then Ironman-style competitions. People who are interested in vegetarian cooking will soon be served content promoting veganism. It is not new or shocking that people with certain interests learn about similar topics; the problem with social media is the intensity and escalation to extreme content. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature of the algorithms.
The recent leaks about Instagram show that people who search for topics like “healthy recipes” may then be shown content for more extreme forms of dieting and pro-anorexia content, according to reporting by the BBC. Psychologists have been warning about this for years.
The algorithm isn’t picky — it will test and sample different types of content, flavors of extremism or ranges of conspiracy theories until something tickles your brain and gets you to linger a bit longer, read a bit more and click the next link. Then the platform will attempt to draw you down that rabbit hole as quickly as possible, for as long as that topic holds your attention.
The risks for children
A serious distinction should be made between how social media is used by adults and by children. Especially since leaked documents suggest that platforms like Instagram target children. In 2021, according to The New York Times , Instagram spent the majority of its nearly $400 million in advertising budget targeting teens.
Wall Street Journal reporting shows that Facebook companies knew about the psychological damage that its algorithms cause when targeting children, and hid research that showed Instagram was increasing anxiety and depression in children.
The effect was particularly pronounced in some teenage girls. Instagram may market everything from extreme workouts, pro-anorexia influencers and content focused on restrictive eating to children who search relatively harmless terms like “healthy recipes” and “exercise routines.”
In Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s 2017 book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, the authors point out a host of mental health concerns in children that are linked with social media, with the effects being especially pronounced for teenage girls.
It’s not new to target children and teens with advertising, but what is new and dangerous is the level of advertising directed at children with little oversight or filters. Children are naturally curious and look for information, and teens are ravenous for information about the social surroundings and information that helps them make sense of it.
The problem is when social media platforms send them in the direction of extreme content extraordinarily quickly. Looking for advice on healthful eating and exercise? It only takes a few dozen clicks and hours of screen time before users are likely to see content about intermittent fasting, 800-calorie diets and extreme workout schedules. Teenage boys looking for tips about dating and relationships? They can quickly get steered into extreme content from “pickup artists” or similar posts that give distorted, misogynistic and ineffective advice about relationships.
Are the risks overblown?
There may appear to be parallels here with other moral panics through the decades. In the 1990s and 2000s, people feared that violent video games caused antisocial behavior in children. The fear that violent video games would lead to real-world violence turned out to be false. Decades of research found no statistically significant effect.
There are two major differences between video games and social media, though:
1. Video games are a fantasy, and research indicates that both children and adults are very capable of separating their behavior in a fantasy world from the real world.
2. Social media is very much focused on modifying real-world behavior. In fact, social media companies endeavor to modify behavior in terms of time spent on their platforms, as well as purchasing and social behavior in both digital and physical spaces. Social media is an enhanced and accelerated part of social life.
Tough times lead to disinformation
People are fundamentally social animals, and so communication and relationships are important parts of who we are and how we understand ourselves and relate to the world. If an algorithm can influence someone’s social circle, and how that person interacts with others, it can have a powerful effect on the user’s behavior.
This is particularly pronounced for teenagers who are even more influenced by group membership, social contagion and peer pressure than adults are. But the effects exist for everyone.
Another problem we’ve seen with social media sites is how quickly they can lead people down rabbit holes of disinformation and conspiracy.
It should not be surprising that during the past few years of extreme uncertainty about the economy, about health and about politics, that people are looking for answers. The greater the level of stress, anxiety and threat that people feel, the more likely they are to accept extreme explanations for problems.
Our brains have evolved to detect patterns, make sense of our world, make sense of social relationships and try to understand what is going on around us. Nearly two years into a global pandemic that increased isolation and unemployment, it is concerning but not surprising that people under extreme stress and hardship develop distorted views of the world and their immediate surroundings.
We know from decades of psychological research that uncertainty can be more stress-inducing than believing in some shadowy global conspiracy. Fantasies of dark, satanic cults and new world orders as an explanation for the world’s current problems are actually less anxiety-inducing than the idea that politicians were completely unprepared for a global pandemic, public health officials and medical researchers struggled to react to a new disease that they didn’t fully understand, and there are not always clear, easy or practical solutions to problems at the scale of a global pandemic.
Social media adds a huge amount of extra risk to this already dangerous situation: Plenty of toxic and destructive groups are active on social media. Acceptance in the group is easy: Agree with the group, and you’re in.
Social media companies tend to take only small steps to prevent the spread of misinformation, and often only after conspiracies have already spread far and wide.
Fundamentally, our brains have a need to know what is going on around us, and to come up with an explanation. When we are fearful, our immediate social groups are important protective factors — our friends, our family, our religious communities, our colleagues and our social clubs help us get through tough times.
People who don’t have any of these groups are likely to struggle more when life gets tough. When our brain is faced with the decision to accept something that may not be true (such as a conspiracy theory) or be cast out of a group, most people choose their group.
Social media isn’t a passing trend, nor is it reasonable to expect most people to opt out. We need to understand the influences that are at play and take responsibility for our own behavior and time spent online. We can choose to ignore instead of amplify some of the worst impulses that come from anger and anxiety online.
Most important, we must make sure our kids have the opportunity to develop their own social relationships outside of social media platforms.
Ian MacRae is the author of the forthcoming book “ Dark Social .”
Harris Eyre is co-founder of the Prodeo Institute and co-lead of the OECD Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative.
Andy Keller is chief executive of Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.
Sandi Chapman is founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.
They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.