WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Commentary: Is Social Media to Blame for Our Anxiety?

Sep 16, 2020

Commentator Beth Howard addresses this dilemma after watching a new Netflix documentary.

So many things are making me anxious these days. I have fears about getting COVID-19, about the November elections, about the rise of white supremacy, about our divisions growing so deep we could end up in a civil war. I worry about how plants, animals, and common decency are on the verge of extinction. From the collapse of our democracy to grocery shopping during a pandemic, I’m afraid of just about everything.

I’ve never been scared like this before. The question is why? What has changed in our world that has made everything so wildly out of balance?

Some blame capitalism, with money driving a wedge between the haves and have-nots. Others blame our current President. One thing I see contributing to the downward spiral of polite society is social media, which is the subject of a new film called The Social Dilemma. I watched it last night and at first it seemed like a dystopian horror movie, but instead of stoking more fear, the documentary gave me some reassurance that I am not alone in my concerns, and that, thankfully, there are people dedicated to turning things around. Ironically, some of those people are the ones who created the problems in the first place, like Aza Raskin who invented infinite scrolling, one of the features that makes social media so addictive—an invention he now regrets. And Justin Rosenstein, who co-created Facebook’s “like” button as a tool for spreading “positivity and love.” That it is used as a measure of self-esteem, and has led to depression and even suicide, was nowhere on his radar.

A central figure in the film, Tristan Harris, the co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, says, “It feels like the world is going crazy.” He poses the question, “Is this normal or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?” His answer is yes, addiction- and manipulation-based technology is designed to work like a spell, employing artificial intelligence that “uses your own psychology against you.”

We are being baited with images and stories to ensure we spend more time online. We are being fed altered videos, misleading memes, and posts so inflammatory they end friendships. Our newsfeeds fill up with false rumors about voter fraud and dangerous claims about COVID cures that proliferate faster than the California wildfires. But do tech companies care about the effect this has on our civil society? No, they don’t, because they’re making huge profits.

The rise of fake news and conspiracy theories is happening not because we are bad human beings who want to turn against each other; it’s because algorithms designed for ad revenue are leading us over the cliff. Lies spread faster than truth, thus producing higher earnings. Cable news, another rabid source of political polarization, is designed this way too. The more outrage, the more people watch, the more advertising dollars they make. Meanwhile we spend less time engaging with people in real life, which only makes us more isolated, disenfranchised and divided.

But how do we stop this vicious cycle?

The consensus of those interviewed in the film is that social media companies need congressional oversight. I agree. On an individual basis, we can hit the pause button. We don’t need to delete our social media accounts all together, but we can stop ourselves from sharing posts or making comments that provoke outrage, and verify that news stories are from legitimate sources. We can limit screen time, and dial down temptation by turning off notifications. And by all means, we should keep our phones out of our bedrooms at night.

We have the power to change our behavior; man can prevail over machine. I have stopped checking my phone when I first wake up. And I am several months into an extended break from Facebook. It started with taking a stand against Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to stop the spread of disinformation and hate speech. But it made me realize how my anxiety was in direct proportion to the time I was spending on social media and news sites. If I wanted to feel better, it was up to me to take steps. I was still doomscrolling on Twitter and the New York Times, but after watching The Social Dilemma I deleted those and any other remaining apps that might elevate my blood pressure. The only ones left are DuoLingo and Solitaire. 

As for being disconnected from friends, when I want to know what’s going on with them I do something really outlandish; I pick up the phone and call. And then the most miraculous thing happens when having a real conversation—I feel a lot less anxious, and a lot more hopeful about the world.

Commentator Beth Howard is an author and pie maker. She blogs at The World Needs More Pie.com.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.