Law in the Internet Society

Realizing the impacts of social media

-- By LaraNurick - 31 Jan 2018


This course has opened my eyes to my relationship with my smartphone and the primary applications I use it for - being social media, which comprise about 38% of my iPhone's battery usage. With Facebook and Instagram being the primary applications, I endeavored to become more cognizant of the ways social media use affects me. I have noticed on multiple occasions, and have therefore concluded that as a general matter, my social media use is largely counterproductive both practically and psychologically. When recently sharing my sentiments with people, they confessed to similar feelings, with three people (out of a small sample size) deleting their Facebook account precisely because its use engendered negative feelings. To diagnose the impact of these platforms on me, heighten my self-awareness and attempt to regain control, I decided to undertake a ten-day social media blackout. Although this duration appears insignificant, the fact this was difficult to sustain highlighted my dependent relationship to these platforms and the severity of the problem.


Whilst the negative impacts of social media should not have surprised me, it is easy to think that any potentially deleterious effects are happening to someone else and that I, as a strongminded, motivated and young individual must be immune. Yet significant research, growing statistics and media attention have coincided with my rising interest in the subject and have confirmed the widespread negative effects of these "social" platforms, revealing that immunity from their addictive psychological stronghold is difficult. Indeed, last week Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff analogized Facebook to cigarette smoking, contending that Facebook should be regulated like cigarette companies. He noted "they're addictive. You know, they're not good for you…There's a lot of parallels". Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook, admitted that the business model relies on "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology". Similarly, Matt Mayberry of Dopamine Labs recently revealed that Instagram is "tying in to your greatest insecurities" by withholding likes. Whilst Instagram's Mike Krieger contested this, the outrage this catalyzed, and the fact people would believe this, is in itself problematic. Facebook has recently acknowledged the overwhelming research corroborating the harmful psychological impacts of social media yet argues that this largely depends on the way in which the platform is used. Generally, distinction is drawn between active and passive use, whereby it is the latter that leads to worse mood, social comparison and undermines affective well-being. Notwithstanding this, Facebook has gradually implemented various changes to make users more actively engaged. Both Facebook's admission and its newfound interest in users' wellbeing (pledging to invest in related research) confirm the issue's existence. Together with the business remaining tied to users' attention - be it active or passive - it has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to continue denying social media's negative impacts.

My typical behavior

Through my experiment, I realized that I use social media a lot, and this use is predominantly passive. Whenever I have spare time, be it seconds or minutes, I check Facebook and Instagram. I refresh their feeds, get caught within loops that lead me down bottomless time-consuming tracks, and feel as though I personally know people I follow on these platforms despite them being strangers in real life. I allow notifications to punctuate my day and often use these platforms whilst multi-tasking. I check my phone when engaged with others, and generally without good reason. When I consider uploading a photo or Instagram story, (which aside from occasionally liking friends' posts is my only really "active" engagement), I contemplate its photographic appeal and time of day and consciously curate my profile. Admittedly, I have allowed numbers of 'likes' or views, or a lack thereof to influence my mood, finding these to be both "hugely uplifting and depressing". Regrettably, I know these experiences are not unique, having witnessed friends, colleagues and acquaintances do the same and having attended events where people are seemingly there merely to document their experiences for the sake of sharing. This perfectly comports with Sherry Turkle's compelling description of the "I share therefore I am" phenomenon, whereby she argues that smartphone and social media use problematize "how we relate to ourselves" having come to "expect more from technology and less from each other". I practice these behaviors notwithstanding the proven distortive effects such practices have on daily life, social life, relationships, psychological wellbeing and my brain.


The hardest part in my social media cleanse was breaking my kneejerk habit. This eased with time as I realized my habit was reflexive and engrained in muscle memory to the extent that I consciously stopped myself a few times, reiterating just how thoughtlessly I use these platforms and how much cumulative time I waste. Idle moments seemed longer but also more meaningful as my eyes were not buried in my phone. I was less distracted and more engaged in whatever I was doing. This was noticeable to those around me. I was more efficient and focused, concentrating on myself rather than on other people's experiences and making less comparisons. I believe that I felt measurably more content. Knowing that people could not reach me through these platforms allowed me to ignore the usual drone of notifications, which eased my mind. This forced me to purposefully engage with people that I wanted to engage with such that my conversations were more meaningful. I concentrated fully and remembered what I was told. I checked my phone less times a day and used it predominantly as a phone. Admittedly, this also made me miss out on a few social events and people's birthdays, although not knowing about them at the time, I did not feel that I was missing out on anything particularly additive in my life, and felt my life was in all likelihood better by abstaining from social media.

Directly post-cleanse I was incredibly conscious of my use and used Instagram and Facebook only minimally. Yet within days my use amplified, showing just how instantaneously addictive these platforms are, probably necessitating permanent deletion.

I wonder if "difficult to sustain" was actually a correct characterization of the experience described at more length in the remainder of the essay.

From an operational point of view, you needed to have a traditional personal memo book and calendar with the birthdays in them. Your unavailability on the platforms might cause people to forget to invite you personally to social events, or it might cause them to remember you especially. (I can't assume Lara will turn up because it's on Facebook.) Individuals of the second type are friends. Human beings adapt to the communication styles of other humans they value. One of the vulnerabilities in human psychology being exploited by the platforms is forgetfulness of that fact, which increases Fear of Missing Out, which is a primary new emotion the platforms create.

In all other respects, the only difficulty you experienced was minor withdrawal symptoms from a habit, nowhere near as wracking as opiate or nicotine or even caffeine withdrawal. And you experienced very significant intellectual and emotional benefit, which reinforce the new habits. If you don't need the smartphone, only a phone, your surveillance profile will immediately drop drastically, which may not afford immediate reinforcement, but will create a growing sensation of security and satisfaction over time.

I don't think revision is necessary: you did the job. I do think that this, like the first essay, now raises the question how—besides the value of the writing itself, which is surely something—you can help to teach other people what you've learned. The conversations with friends you report show why this is a particularly valuable time to be doing that teaching.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

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r2 - 01 Apr 2018 - 14:34:18 - EbenMoglen
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