The hypodermic needle delivers intoxicating drugs into our brains via our bloodstreams. Today, the addictive drug is compelling content, and the needle is the smartphone.
From its gratifying sounds and bright, seductive colours to its likeable pictures and images; social media is becoming as addictive and ultimately destructive as many of the drugs we warn our children about.
As an ex-headteacher, I’ve seen social media addiction in full force in the classroom. Attention span is down, while depression and anxiety are up. We must recognise these platforms for what they are: addiction machines. We should also treat them as such.
Most of us would be ashamed if we knew how much time we actually spent on social media every day. App monitoring firm App Annie revealed that the average person spends 4.8 hours on their phone every day, which makes up a third of our total waking hours.
Social media’s inherent addictive quality is no secret in Silicon Valley. Even Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice-president of user growth, explained that he feels “tremendous guilt”.
“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works”, he said, before admitting that even his children “aren’t allowed to use that s***”.
Many of the tricks used to keep users online for as long as possible are borrowed directly from slot machines and gambling websites, as noted by Natasha Schull, author of Addicted by Design. For example, the “pull-to-refresh” function, where dragging the screen down refreshes the content, is taken straight out of the slot machine handbook. In what is known as a “Ludic loop”, (those cycles of uncertainty, anticipation, and feedback), the rewards keep us engaged enough to clock up our total engagement over the longterm.
Similarly, the “infinite scrolling” feature of apps like Facebook and TikTok means that the dopamine-releasing, short-form content never ends. At least cigarettes and alcohol run out. The same cannot be said of content on social media platforms.
Social media addiction works much like substance dependency; a study by Michigan State University found that there is a connection between heavy social media use and the impaired, risky decision-making found in addicted substance abusers.
In South Korea, the issue of internet addiction is even more prevalent. Authorities suspect that up to 20 per cent of the population is at serious risk of internet addiction. As a result, they are funnelling public funds into digital detox programs, that come in the form of in-school counselling, screening surveys, and even addiction camps.
As humans, we are prone to revel in pleasure before acknowledging and responding to harm. Indeed, during the 19th century, cocaine was freely available in pharmacies and cocaine could still be found in Coca-Cola as late as 1903.
Similarly, between the 1930s and 1950s, cigarettes were actively promoted and prescribed by doctors, with marketing copy for cigarettes reading: “Give your throat a vacation… Smoke a fresh cigarette”.
With social media, the damning science is rolling in and we cannot ignore the results any longer. A 2018 Lancet study found that those who check Facebook late at night were more likely to feel depressed. Another 2018 study found that the less time people spent on social media, the fewer symptoms of depression and loneliness they showed.
Indeed, internal research by Mark Zuckerberg’s company revealed that addiction to Instagram damages the health and school performance of over 6 per cent of teenagers, causing depression, anxiety, and anorexia.
I’ve seen this myself. Children in my class don’t just speak of addiction to one site. They speak about being caught in a “loop”, where they would skim through the seven to eight social media sites they are subscribed to. Once they have been through them all, enough time has elapsed to start the whole process again, and mop up any fresh, new content that has been uploaded in the meantime.
For many of these children, their social lives are inextricably linked with a platform that has been proven to increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia. That scares me.
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Yet what scares me more is the direction of travel for these social media sites. I have written previously about how the Metaverse could be a boon for education. But that is only if the problems baked into social media aren’t copied and pasted across into these new, virtual worlds.
Regulation and education caught up with cigarettes and cocaine in the end. Now, I believe social media sites must be transparent about the addictive mechanisms being built into their platforms.
Children should have to verify their age before making an account, and time bans should be implemented by law for those using these social media sites who are under the age of 18. Much like the addictive warnings that now come with cigarettes, it is time to plaster warnings onto social media sites that utilise addictive technology.
The business model of cigarette companies relies on addiction to boost sales. Social media websites rely on addiction to harvest and sell as much data as possible.
It’s time that we recognised the addictive harm built into the fabric of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. Then we must work to rip addiction out of the heart of these platforms if we want to make a safer, healthier online world for our children to inhabit.
Leon Hady is a former headteacher, and founder of Guide Education, which has trained thousands of teachers
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