Social media has become a huge part of our lives and it is not going anywhere anytime soon. However, we are yet to realise the irreversible changes it can bring to our cognition and perception, changing society forever
By Barish Raman
- Many issues arise from being ‘born digital’, this acclimatisation to socio-digital aspects askew human perception
- We think what we see is real so we are compliant in our acceptance of it as the truth which makes people vulnerable to exploitative propaganda
- The concept of short video content that goes on endlessly with just a simple swipe affects our dopamine regulation
- We sometimes think of trends as a social norm one must follow, making it all the much easier for capitalist consumerism to prey on us as well
SOCIAL MEDIA is something that we have been talking about for decades now. After the launch of Myspace in 2003, followed by the mega-giant that turned out to be Facebook, a year later in 2004, Social media’s evolution was unstoppable. Now, two decades later, the concept of social media is no longer a stranger to our society, but rather, a part or more importantly, an influencer of society. As banal as it is at this point, it all comes down to generations. The classic old cliché of older people complaining about technology or social media while the young-blooded roll their eyes may now seem overused but it sheds light upon an essential and overlooked aspect of how technology has taken over our lives.
THE FEARS OF NORMALISATION
To the younger generations, especially the Gen-Z and millennials, technology and more importantly, social media is something they were born with. Millennials might be older but their introduction to these facets of media at such a malleable age may make it possible to club them with the Gen-Z who were literally born simultaneously with the genesis of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and numerous others. There are innumerable issues that arise from being ‘born digital’, this acclimatisation to socio-digital aspects askew human perception when it all comes down to it whether that is of how we perceive our relationship with the blue-light gadgets or what we see everywhere on social media.
We are social beings who construct our learnt reality by observing and taking in the patterns of behaviour we see daily through various social agents. Starting from our parents and family as primary social agents, coming to the second most important one which is media of all types. However, social media has reigned supremacy over TV and Cinema as people end up not taking in social media with the required grain of salt as in our mind we think that this is real; real people posting real things to show their real life, whereas we are aware of the fictitious element of cinema and TV in the back of our minds. This makes us actively or subconsciously convinced and makes us acquiescent to whatever we are seeing as the truth. The concern arises from not only the fact that we are so compliant in our acceptance of it as the truth which makes people vulnerable to exploitative propaganda and has done so in the past, but also the fact that our entire constructions of reality can be dominated by this.
Ironically enough, the internet recognized this itself when people came up with and popularised the word ‘chronically online’ in late 2021, Urban Dictionary (our most reputable source in this field, funnily enough), defines being chronically online as “Someone who is basically always on the internet and their entire existence revolves around being on the internet. People who are chronically online typically have no real friends IRL [in real life], and stay online starting useless debates that literally achieve nothing outside of a screen.”
IRREVERSIBLE CHANGE TO OUR MINDS
We now observe this extreme normalisation of social media, especially TikTok, and the format it introduced and popularised, short, engaging clips of content that you can swipe down and down on perpetually. It is deeply perturbing how little our empirical and academic knowledge is on the long standing effects of TikTok and other short video algorithm-based apps like the ‘Reels’ or ‘Shorts’ feature of Instagram and YouTube, respectively. We are overly familiar with the term ‘social media addiction’ and we have heard people throw it around quite a lot, however, what we don’t realise is the actual threat it poses. An addiction is an actual dependency the human body can form towards a stimulant to produce certain neurotransmitters, which causes the person to feel certain emotions. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter directly related to motivation and reward more than just rudimentary happiness. The concept of short video content that goes on endlessly with just a simple swipe affects our dopamine regulation. Watching short clips on Reels or TikTok or Shorts releases dopamine in our brains.
Over time, the unregulated production of dopamine, for some, in excessively high amounts, leads to a deficit in the brain, since our dopamine is pushed to levels below baseline when we are not utilising social media, users feel less happy. This fortifies the view that some psychologists hold about the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’, which states that irrespective of what occurs, people consistently return to their initial level of happiness and the overexposure to the dopamine we get from social media, whether that is from watching a Reel or seeing a notification that someone liked our photo, after a point lowers due to desensitisation. Hence, we start spending more and more time on the phone to try to achieve that same level of satisfaction and feeling of reward. This also makes us dependent on social media for self-actualization and validation.
The unregulated production of dopamine, for some, in excessively high amounts, leads to a deficit in the brain, since our dopamine is pushed to levels below baseline when we are not utilising social media, users feel less happy. This fortifies the view that some psychologists hold about the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’, which states that irrespective of what occurs, people consistently return to their initial level of happiness and the overexposure to the dopamine we get from social media
We start trying to live just to present a certain narrative about ourselves to the online public. Since everyone only posts their positives, their lives at the best and highest moments or their appearance at the best, we forget that our lowest points also exist. We do not acknowledge our negative experiences thinking that they are not normal. However, every coin has two sides and a small minority on social media are aware of this and try to spread awareness, although the desperation for likes, engagement, and being able to reach the majority through the algorithm hinders the process.
Another thing we have always heard the older generations complain about is the lack of patience in their successive generations and they might have a point. Our capacity to focus on anything else we deem to be less intriguing has been negatively impacted by social media’s quick and instant gratification, which has taken control of our attention spans. We are so used to watching short, engaging clips that our brains are no longer used to paying attention for longer chunks of time. This was one of the most major reasons that content creators of YouTube also had to succumb to the concept of short videos to acquire the necessary amount of engagement that they need to stay successful. It is ironic how you can see the negative impact social media has brought, even affecting social media itself. This is why it is a lot easier to watch Reels for hours but not be able to watch a one-and-a-half-hour movie. This cognitive degradation has been actively supported by social media becoming an irreplaceable and huge part of our lives. We did not just lose our attention span, we let it be stolen.
SUCCUMBING TO PROPAGANDA
Another grave concern that comes along with the irreversible change that has altered the trajectory of our lives and the lives of future generations is the fear of propaganda and brainwashing. Humans often tend to mistake the majority for rationality. The lack of self-awareness and deluded narcissistic self-perception along with the ability to maintain anonymity behind a phone makes social media the perfect breeding ground for misinformation supported by numbers. A powerful force defined as “herd mentality” can transcend reason, logic, and common sense.
For instance, a Reuters Institute survey of English-language internet users in India discovered that around 52% of respondents got the news via WhatsApp or Facebook, leading to the death of 31 people in 2017 and 2018 due to mob attacks spread by false rumours online. This culture of misinformation that often spreads mass confusion and seeks to propagate violence against certain communities goes a long way in shaping the ideologies and mindsets of people, embedding prejudicial bias in their heads and going as far as influencing their vote. It has also helped in swaying the public opinion, or rather blinding them through their IT cells. The CAA protests of 2019 and the Farmers’ protests of 2020-21, were no strangers to this either when false information about the protestors was spread on social media, especially Twitter, which is the primary capital of spreading hate, trolling, and propaganda.
A crowd-funded study conducted by Mozilla Foundation showed that more than 70% of extremist content found on YouTube was recommended to users by the algorithm. Now, all major platforms only rely on a suggestion-based personalised algorithm and TikTok’s algorithm is no different
A crowd-funded study conducted by Mozilla Foundation showed that more than 70% of extremist content found on YouTube was recommended to users by the algorithm. Now, all major platforms only rely on a suggestion-based personalized algorithm and TikTok’s algorithm is no different. Rightists and extremists of various ideologies have been able to exploit Instagram and TikTok for fulfilling their own selfish goals. The rise of social media has also led to it being used as a campaigning agent for political parties. Facebook’s official policy now allows politicians to pay to spread disinformation, leading to its rampant use as a platform for census suppression, violence, and the spread of political advertisements that have not been fact-checked. Both Congress and BJP have been accused of spreading misleading or misrepresenting information online.
The nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) conducted a study, where researchers set up accounts, posing as 13-year-olds to see what content is suggested by the app. Within 2.6 minutes after joining, users were recommended content related to suicide and within 8 minutes content that presented eating disorders could be seen. This helps us shed light upon an interminable concern of losing ourselves in the fabricated reality that social media presents to us. This especially pertains to young adults and teenagers who also happen to be the main group of consumers for most social media.
Millennials might be older but their introduction to these facets of media at such a malleable age may make it possible to club them with the Gen-Z who were literally born simultaneously with the genesis of social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and numerous others
If the Internet has been called a great democratizer, perhaps what social media has done is let anyone enter the beauty pageant. People, especially, influencers and celebrities incessantly establish beauty standards for all of society and everyone blindly follows them, forgetting the masquerade these people put up through intensive diets, professional styling, and extensive use of photo editing. TikToks and Reels have multiplied the intensity of this fallacious culture of social media. With an overwhelming amount of trends to keep up with, we sometimes think of trends as a social norm one must follow, making it all the much easier for capitalist consumerism to prey on us as well. Following trends becomes a necessity for people, the same way social norms do, both stemming from the same fear we hold as social beings, of being ostracised for not being congruent with the majority.
Although we need to realise that social media is not going anywhere and it is not just sheer evil, even with all its negatives as it does allow people to spread awareness, especially in cases when traditional media chooses to stay mute and deaf, it is the common masses with the help of social media that are able to exercise their democracy. The Iran protests followed by the tragic death of Mahsa Amini and the ongoing protests in France after a change in retirement and pension laws showed the importance of social media when the traditional press did not shed enough light on these crucial moments in these countries’ histories. It has also given major opportunities to a lot of people in their careers and finances with monetization. Despite this silver lining, it all comes down to us to protect ourselves from the damage that these personalised algorithm-based apps can bring to us through regulation and active rationalisation. After the COVID-19 pandemic, our screen time went up to 7+ hours a day and still is for a lot of us, as reported by Vivo. It is our responsibility to set up clear boundaries with how much we engage with one activity in our lives to avoid forming a dependency on them that can blur the lines of our perception.