Estia Ryan

Social media – we all take part in it, some way or another. Whether it’s the recurring ‘ping’ from Messenger, Snapchat, or Instagram, the social-validation feedback loop is ruining productivity and attention spans. 50% of parents and 70% of teenagers feel urged to respond to these notifications immediately.

Social media executives themselves are secretive about their own use. The Twitter CFO sends under two tweets a month. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, is not as frugal with his own social media use, but has 12 moderators on his personal page and a ‘handful’ of staff carefully crafting pictures, comments, posts.

Sean Parker, co-founder of Facebook, believes that social media ‘exploits human vulnerability’. The same company’s former VP for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, criticised his own company for creating ‘tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works’.

Social media companies have responded to these ‘addiction’ claims by encouraging users to use more, like more, share more. The cure to online loneliness is being online longer.

This instant gratification is affecting our attention span. Microsoft Canada conducted an experiment in early 2000 to see how long the average person could pay attention. Back then attention spans were just over 12 seconds long. Fast forward to 2013 and this number has almost dropped by half, to 8 seconds.

This social-validation feedback loop is fundamental to Facebook’s success, which prides itself on keeping users engaged on the platform longer than other social media websites. Whereas Whatsapp and Twitter make ‘read receipts’ optional (confirmation that you have read someone’s message), Messenger offers no such luxury. The result is that people feel forced to reply instantly, with The Guardian calling it ‘emotionally manipulative’.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has gone as far as saying that Facebook should be ‘regulated like the cigarette industry’ – a strong claim from a powerful influencer.

Facebook wrote a short statement in December 2017 on their Newsroom Blog, explaining their take on healthy social media engagement. The key takeaways were that ‘passively consuming information’ is harmful, while ‘actively interacting with people’ is beneficial. The post concludes that Facebook will change ‘news feed’ structures (reducing low-quality content), introducing ‘snooze’ (hiding pages or persons for 30 days), and developing suicide prevention tools to help users in distress.

But to what extent can Facebook afford to uproot its business model? Keeping users strapped into the site means substantial advertising revenue and effective self-promotion. The company would have to radically change tack if it is serious about addressing problematic use.

‘The Truth about Tech’ campaign was launched by old Facebook and Google employees, who are worried about the mental health impacts of excessive technology. Common Sense and the Center for Human Technology have pumped $7 million into the campaign which aims to educate students and children in 55,000 public schools about responsible use of social media.

For now these negative effects haven’t affected stock prices and wide public perception. But a drastic social media rethink is long overdue. We need to change the way we use platforms, engage with more meaningful content and ditching passive surfing. But of course this can’t be done solely from the consumer side. Silicon Valley executives must make practical and tangible changes, for the sake of our mental health.