Social media and consent in a newly digital world

Photo courtesy of Dani Sisson, Student Publications

I am addicted to my phone. Chances are, so are you.

Based on various surveys conducted between 2020 and 2021, 40-60% of participants self-reported being addicted to their cell phones. Of the time spent on their phones, the majority reported that it was spent using social media.

In an age where many professional and social interactions take place through a digital medium, avoiding the use of some form of social media is like neglecting to use roads for transportation.

This new frontier, exacerbated by the necessary isolation caused by the pandemic, has led most people to spend upwards of three hours per day on their phones.

While many of us may believe that we can adequately insulate ourselves against any possible negative side effects that come from a world where technological evolution is far outpacing our legislative ability to introduce restrictions, this is a false presumption, and it is one with which I was forced to reconcile with over the past two years.

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, I noticed my intake of social media (and media in general) dramatically increased as I attempted to fill time with pseudo-social interaction and parasocial relationships that may have otherwise been filled with in-person activities.

At the same time, with increased anxiety from world events and obsessive engagement with the news, I noticed my mental health taking a turn for the worse. Whether on Instagram, Facebook or Youtube, false idealizations of my peers’ lives and algorithms that pushed me towards hateful content began to wear on me daily until I hit a point where I decided I had had enough.

I wanted to regain control of my interactions with social media and create a relationship that was based around intention and consent.

However, like with any addiction, cutting it out completely turned out to be extremely difficult. 

My brain had become structured to receive dopamine through interactions on social media, and cutting off all engagement proved to be unsustainable.

Through resources such as the “Center for Humane Technology,” I learned more about how the algorithms I was interacting with were designed and how sheer force of will would likely not be enough to restructure my relationship with these platforms, so I began to try to disincentivize myself from mindlessly interacting with them.

I started to create roadblocks for myself. I removed the apps from my phone so that I had to intentionally engage with these platforms on a web browser rather than rhythmically tapping through an ingrained sequence. I began only logging on through private browsers, so I couldn’t just “one-click” return to the social media sites. I enabled two-factor authentication so that the process of logging on became so tedious that it wouldn’t justify the microdosed levels of dopamine the platforms were designed to dole out.

Over time, my relationship with online media began to shift, but like with every difficult obstacle to overcome in life, I was only able to restructure my habits through small, but consistent, incremental changes.

While our culture often holds dear the idea that all can be overcome with enough individual will, this is especially a falsehood in the sphere of social media and direct marketing campaigns.

As an individual experiencing a barrage of annoying ads, you may be prone to thinking that you are immune to such benign tactics; you’re never going to buy that juice press that requires you to keep buying their specific fruit packets. However, getting you to buy that juice press isn’t really the point of the advertisement.

While a small percentage of people may buy a product that is being directly marketed to them, a much larger percentage of people are just having their brains shifted ever so slightly into the direction of the marketing and social media companies’ choosing. The real power of marketing on social media is not in its immediate consequences but rather in the small incremental changes to our brains that take place everyday.

Whether it is weight loss supplements pushing you to be more self conscious over time or Instagram “likes” conditioning you to receive validation from meaningless interactions, the power of these influences is immense and often insidious.

As exemplified by the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the “Facebook Files,” instances of unintentionally optimizing users’ attention, especially teenagers, towards disordered eating and body dysmorphia content is a known and not uncommon phenomenon.

While we can certainly ask ourselves what we can personally do to create more intentional relationships with social media, it is pertinent that we also demand more from the large social media moguls that now govern the largest communication platforms of today’s world.

Unfortunately, the fight for greater focus on sustainable ethics and consent against large media companies will likely be a decades long struggle. 

With the pace of the legislative process as well as the capital interests invested in companies such as Meta, there will likely be a long uphill battle towards transparency and accountability.

While our individual wills may not be as strong as we would like to believe them to be, it does not mean that we are entirely helpless to the whims of corporations whose only current moral obligations are to capitalist shareholders. 

For more information on how you can begin to restructure your relationship with social media, visit the “Center for Humane Technology” at www.humanetech.com.