A recent study from CBS showed that 29% of people between 18-25 years considered themselves ‘addicted’ to social media. But what does it mean to be a true addict? Who is responsible for addressing this public issue? We talked to Lisanne de Weert, student of Industrial Design and Mechanical Engineering, and Greta Seuling, student of Psychology, to ask these and other questions about our youth’s increasing dependence on social media platforms.
Should using social media be considered an actual ‘addiction’ or are people overreacting to how much they are using it?
De Weert: ‘Imagine replying to someone who says ‘I’m addicted to heroin’ with ‘oh, I’m also an addict to social media!’ It’s not the same thing. It makes it hard to determine who is actually addicted and who just claims to have an addiction.’
Seuling: ‘We overuse the term “addiction” on things that are not necessarily addictions, and so the term loses its value. Right now, it’s almost considered cool to be part of this circle of people “addicted” to social media without considering that if it’s a real addiction, it’s an impediment to your life. There’s a problem with how much people use social media, but then the question we should ask is why are people so dependent on it? Is it just because of the dopamine releases you get when someone likes your photo? Or is there something that doesn’t function well in real life that is causing that dependence?’
How are the dopamine releases that users get from social media interactions different to those they get from interactions offline?
Seuling: ‘You do not get the same type of validation in the real world; it’s much more ambiguous whether someone likes you or not. Whereas on social media, you have that definite, clear confirmation with the number of likes, followers, and views on your posts. I feel young people enjoy the responses they get on social media after posting that they’re at an event more than they enjoy the event itself.’
De Weert: ‘Maybe that is when the addiction starts. You cannot step out of that virtual world and live in the real world. People like control and predictability, which they get by creating these virtual worlds. The real world is unpredictable and you have much less control, so that’s why people gravitate more towards the virtual one they constructed, because it’s safe and comforting.’
Evidence indicates the harm that abuse of social media has in young people: poor sleep quality, depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem. Are adults doing enough to address this public health issue?
De Weert: ‘Kids aren’t going to listen to their parents telling them “spend less time on social media!”. What we should do instead is change the social construct of posting. I wish people would post realistic photos instead: ugly photos of them having just woken up, or photos of them just being bored on their couch.’
Seuling: ‘Another problem with parents of the generation “addicted” to social media is that they didn’t grow up with this technology and therefore don’t know how to handle it. They lack the experience. I think it would be good to include classes in schools on how to handle social media in a healthy way.’
What about the platform designers? What could they do to address this ‘addiction’ issue?
De Weert: ‘That’s quite difficult. For instance, an advice for social media users is to set your screen in black and white so that your phone becomes less attractive. Facebook could design their platform in black and white but then… it would be less attractive! The benefit is also the downside for them.’
Seuling: ‘I think over time sites will be developed in a more ethical way. People are looking more and more for products that have more ethical awareness. But you always need responsibility from two sides, in the product designer and in the user itself. One alone doesn’t suffice.’
Would companies design their platforms to be less addictive even if making people use your product less is completely against their business model?
Seuling: ‘Take the addiction analogy. Many people realize at some point that they have an addiction and that they don’t like it and want to get rid of it. Social media sites will experience people saying “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Perhaps future generations will say, “I don’t want to live my life on a small device.” I think companies that address this sooner are the ones that will survive.’