“Social media” is a clumsy term that entangles enriching social interaction with mindless media consumption. It’s a double-edged sword whose sides aren’t properly distinguished. Taken as a whole, we can’t decide if it “brings the world closer together” like Facebook’s new mission statement says, or leaves us depressed and isolated. It does both, but our opportunity and the tech giants’ responsibility is to shift usage toward “time well spent.”
Thankfully, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems ready to embrace that responsibility. “Time spent is not a goal by itself. We want the time people spend on Facebook to encourage meaningful social interactions,” he said on its most recent earnings call.
[Update 12/15/17: Further showing Facebook’s interest, today it published its own “Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” blog post with more research to the same conclusion as the science I cite below: it’s passive social media usage that depresses us, so we need to engage.
Facebook notes it’s pledged $1 million towards youth technology usage and well-being research. It’s formally launching a Snooze feature we spotted testing in September that lets you hide a person, Page or Group for 30 days if you need some peace. And it announced it will host a summit next year for academics and industry leaders to examine digital distraction, multi-tasking, and focus. But the post only suggests highly indirect ways of addressing mindless consumption, rather than any purposeful interventions.]
It’s not just a Facebook issue. Notification-spamming mobile app developers, video platforms like Netflix and YouTube and video games from Candy Crush to Call of Duty need to wake up to how their design choices can squander our attention and stifle our sanity. But Facebook, with its ubiquity, roaring business, idealistic leadership and opportunity to promote what’s positive about technology is uniquely positioned to sound the alarm.
To change behavior, we first need to explore the research and measure the difference between connection and distraction.
Active versus passive Facebooking
Late at night or lacking energy or losing focus, I and many others often turn to Facebook. Scrolling its endless feed can deliver delightful little doses of dopamine. A photo of a friend or a news link gives us the momentary sensation of accomplishing something, even if it’s just learning some tiny bit of information, no matter how irrelevant. We know we could be getting ready for bed, or contacting someone we care about or getting work done, but nothing’s easier than giving in to craving for another digital content snack.
Facebook is the perfect trap for our attention, especially when our will is weak. Algorithmically sorted feeds bring the best content to you with no effort, a simple click lets you dole out a Like and no matter what time of day or how much you browse, there’s always something new. There’s FarmVille and Watch videos and news Trends and Stories to imbibe.