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How Algorithms Power Social Media Addiction & Unhappiness

Introduction

Depending on how you see it, social media addiction is either a global pandemic of the mind or just the first step towards a more digitalized existence. An existence where the norm will be that we spend a large part of daily life as avatars in a meta-world.  Based on my research, I think that both sides of the coin hold true.

The digital world will continue to expand and evolve in the coming decades with the development of the Metaverse/Web 3.0 powered by blockchain and AI. In all likelihood, we are still in the early stages of this development. Social media have enrichened the world with new means of communication that transcend borders and time zones. However, the popular social media platforms were not really made for people to connect. Beneath the surface of the user interface, social media’s raison d’être are data-gathering and advertising.

As we shall see, their business model is premised on our addiction to them. It’s important to be aware of the negative impacts social media has on individuals and society as a whole. In this way, we can build new digital landscapes responsibly, and alternatively, allow users to limit or opt-out of social media use on an informed basis.

Algorithms

The video-sharing app TikTok has since its launch in August 2018, passed more than 1 billion monthly users (as of September 2021).[1]  Everyone who has tried it, know how difficult it is to disengage from the endless stream of short videos (maximum video length is 3 minutes).  The videos can be entertaining, shocking, informative, thought-provoking, but above all, the constant video loop is addictive. TikTok’s recommendation system has an amazing ability to understand your interests and (hidden) desires, and magically feed you with video after video that matches your preferences.

The more you use TikTok, the better it becomes at personalizing content. A recently leaked document shown to the NY Times reveals that in the pursuit of the company’s ultimate goal of adding daily active users, TikTok recommendation system focuses on two key metrics:

  • Retention: Whether a user comes back to a certain type of content
  • Time spent: How much time a user spends on watching a certain type of content

Besides watch time, TikTok makes predictions on which videos are likely to keep you engaged from three bits of data: your likes, comments, and playtime.  Based on this rough equation, the algorithm gives scores to all videos and returns to users videos with the highest score.[2] But if the algorithm only pushed a certain type of content, the user would quickly become bored and close the app. To get around repetitiveness, TikTok makes machine learning-driven predictions about you. The algorithm tests out different, but related types of content, to see how you respond and to keep you engaged.[3]

Importantly, the key business metric for TikTok is users’ watch time. Your attention is their currency. From the user’s point of view, social media services offer an endless source of entertainment, education, and pastime. Behind the curtains, something entirely else is going on…

After scrolling through TikTok for a few hours, the AI has detected your likes and dislikes, tastes in music, sexual orientation, state of mind, and much more. This information is used partly for targeted advertisement, and partly to make you more addicted to the platform. Despite what it might seem, the algorithms are not designed to show content that inspires users, but content that keeps them hooked.

I use TikTok as an example here, but YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and countless other social media apps function on the same financial premise. The same goes for Google. Do you think Google is a technology company? Think again. Google is normally associated with the search engine, Google Translate, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Docs, and much more. But primarily, Google is an advertisement company.  Google’s ad revenue accounted for 80% of their combined revenue in 2020 (almost 150 billion US dollars).[4]

Social Media Addiction and Information Overload

The hugely successful business model of contemporary social media apps is based on the users’ attention and consequently their addiction to the platforms.

According to a leading report from 2021[5], there are now 4.20 billion social media users around the world. Which translates to more than 53% of the world’s total population. That figure is growing every year.

Stats on social media use

(Source: Simon Kemp on behalf of DataReportal (2021), Digital 2021: Global Overview Report -> https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-global-overview-report)

On a global level, the typical user in 2021 spent 2 hours and 25 minutes on social media each day, equating to roughly one full waking day of their life each week.[6]

Every second more than 6.000 thousand tweets are tweeted on Twitter, and more than a billion hours of content on YouTube is consumed every day.[7] During the first iteration of the internet (Web 1.0) – before the advent of social media – internet users had to actively seek out the information they needed. In the current iteration of the internet (Web 2.0), users are passively bombarded with information from every angle. The likes, clicks, updates, constant flow of information, pictures, and images, sparks the dopamine networks of users and can become a legitimate addiction.  That is no accident, since profiling, advertising, and user addiction make the economic wheels of social networks turn.

Negative Impacts of Social Media Addiction

While face-to-face social interactions enhance our sense of mental well-being, social media use is found to have the opposite effect.[8] Excessive use of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, leads to FOMO (fear of missing out), increased anxiety, depression, and loneliness.[9] Somewhat similar symptoms to a drug addict in need of his drug.

In particular, Facebook (now Meta) has been criticized for withholding internal documents regarding Instagram’s negative effect on young users’ state of mind.[10] From 2019 to 2021, inside researchers at Instagram have conducted focus groups, large-scale online surveys, and diary studies on young users’ well-being. [11] The documents were recently leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

Among the findings was that 32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse. Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the desire to kill themselves to Instagram.[12]

Here is a slide from a 2019 internal presentation called ‘Teen Mental Health Deep Dive’[13]:

  • Young people are acutely aware that Instagram can be bad for their mental health, yet are compelled to spend time on the app for fear of missing out on cultural and social trends
  • Teens specifically call out the following as ways that Instagram harms their mental health
    • pressure to conform to social stereotypes
    • pressure to match the money and body shapes of influencers
    • the need for validation – views, likes, followers
    • friendship conflicts, bullying and hate speech
    • over-sexualization of girls
    • inappropriate advertisements targeted to vulnerable group

Up until the documents were leaked, Facebook has hidden its research from the public light, even when academics or lawmakers had asked for it. The management has so far downplayed, if not outrightly denied, Instagram’s negative effects on young teen brains. When CEO Mark Zuckerberg was asked about children and mental health at a congressional hearing in March 2021, he responded[14]:

The research that we’ve seen is that using social apps to connect with other people can have positive mental-health benefits

In May 2021, Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, in the same lines told reporters that research he had seen suggests the app’s effects on teen well-being is likely “quite small.”[15]

Closing Thoughts

Have social media platforms done good things for society?

To quote Instagram Head of Public, Karina Newton, on the day of The Wall Street Journal-leak[16]:

“Social media isn’t inherently good or bad for people. Many find it helpful one day, and problematic the next. What seems to matter most is how people use social media, and their state of mind when they use it.”

However, at the back of the mind, it should be remembered that social media platforms, whether Instagram, Tiktok, or Facebook, are driven by earning revenue and that our attention is the product.


[1] Kim Lyons (2021), TikTok says it has passed 1 billion users -> https://www.theverge.com/2021/9/27/22696281/tiktok-1-billion-users (21-12-2021).

[2] Ben Smith (2021), How TikTok Reads Your Mind -> https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/05/business/media/tiktok-algorithm.html (21-12-2021).

[3] Wiser! Newsletter (2021), What Makes TikTok so Addictive? ->   https://hackernoon.com/what-makes-tiktok-so-addictive (21-12-2021).

[4] Joseph Johnson, “Advertising revenue of Google from 2001 to 2020,” Statista, February 5, 2021: https://www.statista.com/statistics/266249/advertising-revenue-ofgoogle/.

[5] Simon Kemp on behalf of DataReportal (2021), Digital 2021: Global Overview Report -> https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-global-overview-report (23-12-2021).

[6] Ibid.

[7]See here https://www.internetlivestats.com/twitter-statistics/ (Twitter) and here https://blog.youtube/news-and-events/you-know-whats-cool-billion-hours/ (YouTube).

[8] See Shakya & Christakis (2017), Association of Facebook Use With Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study.

[9] Hunt, Marx & Young (2018), No More FOMO: Limiting Social Media Decreases Loneliness and Depression -> https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/pdf/10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751.

[10] Damien Gayle (2021), Facebook aware of Instagram’s harmful effect on teenage girls, leak reveals -> https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/sep/14/facebook-aware-instagram-harmful-effect-teenage-girls-leak-reveals.

[11] Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman (2021), Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show -> https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen-girls-company-documents-show-11631620739.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Karina Newton, Head of Public Policy, Instagram (2021), Using research to improve your experience -> https://about.instagram.com/blog/announcements/using-research-to-improve-your-experience.

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