How Addictive Is Social Media, Really?

When tech pros picture people using social media, they envision curious consumers eager to connect with humanity. It’s a nice way to think about our modern age. But it’s not true.

The real face of a social media user is closer to Werner Herzog’s description of a man-eating bear in Grizzly Man—overwhelming indifference marked by a blank stare that speaks only of a half-bored interest in food.

A recent Guardian story warns of the perils of social media addiction but I have to wonder if it misses the point. Silicon Valley developers are increasingly trying to make their technology as habit forming as possible. But while their intentions are no doubt bad, I doubt they understand human nature well enough to really pull it off.

Look, I’ll admit, it’s a hell of headline. As a writer, it’s hard not to have a pang of professional envy flare up over “Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia.” That’s pure and uncut Black Mirror—you can almost hear the cockney accented pitch meeting, “what it there wuz an app, but it was right mental?”

The article records the is growing concern that technology is addictive and limits people’s ability to focus and might make us dumber. And while Silicon Valley publically encourages our reliance on technology, a growing number of tech pros are trying to tamp down the influence of tech in their personal lives.

The story makes a classic tech dude mistake. It overstates the achievement and importance of tech. But it misses a central truth: boredom and powerlessness is at the root of all of this behavior. We don’t go to Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat to feel good. We go there because we feel bad, want a distraction from our bad feeling and it’s the only option that’s available.

If you live in a city, you travel amongst dozens of social media users every day. It doesn’t look like people who are compelled to do something they compulsively enjoy. Instead, it’s endless waves of dead eyed staring and mechanically dragged and tapping a screen blankly and grudgingly tapping a screen.

We’re bored and frustrated by a modern world that has stripped us of real choice. If the only option is Facebook, we’re going to take Facebook.