Every time I open my laptop to write, do homework or do anything productive, I am always faced with a difficult choice. Can I complete the task at hand, or will I get distracted by the likes of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Reddit? These sites, and others, are what I have deemed the “horsemen of the productivity apocalypse” simply because they are always there in the distance, ready to kill whatever productive momentum I have at any given moment. 

In all seriousness, social media has become a major problem in today’s day and age. Not simply just for issues of productivity but also for problems such as raising risks of anxiety and depression, massive privacy faults and the spread of disinformation, to name a few. Sites such as Facebook at one point were revered for their innovation and impressive growth; now people scorn them for selling off data and spreading misinformation. How have we come so far in such little time, and what is to be done?

These problems generated by social media are not by accident; in fact, they are quite by design. Depending on what kinds of people populate your feed, you may have heard of the term “the attention economy” before. The essential idea is that digital companies, such as Facebook and YouTube, are all competing for your time, i.e. your attention. Every minute you spend on their site generates revenue by way of selling ad space or tracking data to sell. Because social media platforms have a direct incentive to keep you on the site, one of their primary objectives is to design algorithms that accomplish just that. This is why we see features such as endless feeds instead of pages to click through, or constant notifications to draw us back in. However, these intentional design features have also brought more insidious consequences.

These types of algorithms are literal addiction machines. Every time we get a like, mention, comment or follow request, our brains get a quick shot of dopamine — the chemical responsible for sensations of pleasure. The problem is, over time, our dopamine receptors can build up a tolerance, and all of sudden we need more stimulus to reach the same “high” — this is the basic science of addiction. In a business model that values only attention and time, social media platforms want people addicted to their site so they log in more frequently and stay on longer. The consequences of operating this machine are serious.

A 2017 study published by the Journal of Affective Disorders found that “more time spent using social media was associated with greater symptoms of dispositional anxiety” in adults aged 18-22. It also found that more daily social media use was linked to greater odds of having an anxiety disorder. Furthermore, in another study published in the University of Chicago Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, smartphones may “impair cognitive performance by affecting the allocation of attentional resources, even when consumers successfully resist the urge to multitask, mind-wander, or otherwise (consciously) attend to their phones—that is, when their phones are merely present.”

In even more grave circumstances, sites such as YouTube have come under fire for promoting hateful or shocking content in the recommended sections as a way to keep users watching. YouTube has said this is a flaw in an ever-changing algorithm, but the logic is intuitive: People are curious and are more willing to click on shocking or controversial videos, which become more popular, and thus the algorithm shows it to more people. YouTube has an incentive to promote these videos, as our attention via watchtime translates to ad revenue for the platform.

To be fair, this type of attention based business model is not unique to modern times. In the past, newspapers would often print attention-grabbing front page headlines to increase sales. The birth of 24-hour cable news in the ’80s also brought a flair for the dramatic to keep consumers from changing the channel. The main difference here is that these other examples didn’t follow people around wherever they went, and didn’t see the same negative effects that we are seeing now in such a magnitude. 

So how do we fix the problem? Personal choice and responsibility are ultimately important considerations. Meditation, scheduling no-screen times and setting other app limits are a great way to reduce the negative impacts of the attention economy. For me, deleting social apps from my smartphone in order to take away the temptation has proven to be an effective, albeit imperfect, way to combat the system. But as with any addictive substance, there needs to be greater accountability. Limiting features such as endless scrolling, pervasive notifications and demonetizing hateful or shocking content are all possible solutions that these companies ought to take to help curb the issue. 

Many of these design flaws result from an era of the internet that is now rapidly changing. We can no longer let an entire industry profit from products that cause addiction and anxiety. When many of these companies were founded, the internet was a brand new frontier without rules or precedent. It was a digital Wild West. But just like the Wild West of old, its time may be coming to an end.

Timothy Spurlin can be reached at timrspur@umich.edu.

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