Is Social Media As Addictive As Cocaine?

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Is Social Media As Addictive As Cocaine?

By Paul Fuhr 07/13/18

One expert suggests that media-stoked fears about addictive technology only serve to divert attention from pressing problems like online privacy and user consent.

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person simultaneously using smartphone and laptop

Following a recent spate of headlines likening social media to hard drugs, some psychologists deny they’re similar at all. According to Business Insider, scientists from the Oxford Internet Institute believe it’s not only irresponsible to compare the two, but doing so actually distracts from far more serious problems plaguing the tech world.

The media, though, makes it difficult to separate founded fears from the unfounded ones. The BBC recently reported that social media companies were actively addicting their users through a variety of psychological techniques—an alarming claim that, if true, makes social media addiction more controversial than it already is.

“It's as if they're taking behavioral cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that's the thing that keeps you coming back and back and back,” Aza Raskin, a former Mozilla engineer, said of the industry. “Behind every screen on your phone, there are generally like literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting.” 

Raskin says that he’s the one who conceived of “infinite scrolling,” where users endlessly swipe down through online content (think Instagram) without ever having to click anywhere. It’s a trick that keeps people glued to their devices, Raskin told the BBC, as it prevents a user’s brain to “catch up” with their impulses.

Andrew Przybylski, however, doesn’t believe that Silicon Valley’s engineers can successfully incorporate psychology into any of their social media designs. Przybylski, the Oxford Internet Institute’s director, balked at the BBC story and labeled Raskin’s research as “very sloppily done.”

He added that if Raskin “actually knew anything” about the psychology behind addictive technology, the much-reported dangers of social media would be frighteningly accurate.

A number of stories continue to portray digital screens no differently than addictive chemicals. And while there is evidence that the brain releases dopamine when people check their Facebook account, Przybylski insists that it’s not remotely the same thing as getting high from a drug.

“Dopamine research itself shows that things like video games and technologies, they're in the same realm as food and sex and learning and all of these everyday behaviors,” he told Business Insider, “whereas things like cocaine, really you're talking about 10, 15 times higher levels of free-flowing dopamine in the brain.”

Przybylski suggests that media-stoked fears about addictive technology only serve to divert attention from pressing problems like online privacy and user consent. They also distract from the most important objective: good research.

Przybylski is skeptical that enough research data exists in the first place, let alone social media companies regularly using it in their work.

“The main takeaway here is that we don't actually know these things," said Przybylski, calling for more collaboration with research. “It is important for these large companies to share their data with researchers, and share their data with the public. This research needs to be done transparently. It can't just be a bunch of Cambridge Analyticas and one-on-one relationships between social media companies and researchers.” 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.

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