PART OF VICE MONTH, where we look at the science on some of the ‘racier’ things people use to seek happiness. Or in this case just a very addictive one.
The next time you are bored, visit a tobacco shop. I’m not talking kinda bored (like “channel-surfing bored”) or pretty bored (like “watching the Academy Awards” bored). I’m talking full-blown, all out, painfully bored, as in “being chained to your opinionated neighbor Ned (a.k.a. Nascar Ned, a.k.a. ‘nnoying Ned) to watch a 7 day Cricket Match which is eventually cancelled with a final score of 1-0 due to sheer disgust.” That kind of bored. Frankly, if you are that bored you need to design a better life.
Anyway, head on down there to Smoker’s Joint, or Puff Daddy’s, or Pirate Cigaaarrrrrrrrrs, or whatever clever place sells death sticks in your locale and do a quick inventory. You’ll find cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chaw, snus, and maybe hookah, depending on your zip code. You’ll also find scratch-off tickets and probably some inappropriate bumper stickers. But despite the fact that every product in the store is bursting at the seams with nicotine (even the obscene t-shirts, which contain 22% nicotine absorbed from all the second-hand smoke in the place), you will never, ever find nicotine gum. Why not? Because nicotine gum exists solely to help people quit smoking, and when you have a product that gets you ‘customers for life’ you aren’t going to help them kick that habit. Especially if your customers tend to live shorter lives.
Moving along…Every day, optimistic coders submit applications (apps) to Apple (world dominator) for approval, in the hope that the app will be approved, added to the App Store (cash printing factory), and wind up in the pockets (lint collectors) and purses (junk bins) of every creature on the planet. Do not overlook the magnitude of this approval process: Apple receives between 600 and 1,000 new “application applications” (app apps) per day, and approves 90% of them, after which 99.9993% of them vanish into the sea of over 1,000,000 other apps in the store and are never heard of again.
Apple rejects apps for several basic reasons including basic things like “app does not function” or “user interface looks like Windows 98,” and more esoteric reasons like “app content offensive to 85% of technologically literate dolphins.” The bar is actually shockingly low, as evidenced by the early surge of apps whose sole purpose was to produce farting sounds, and the inexplicable triumph of Flappy Bird, a game so pointless and hard that the average user game score was 4 (seriously), making it only slightly more entertaining than a 7-day Cricket match.
So app developer Ramsay Brown was understandably confused when his app, called Space, was rejected in January. Here’s a brief description of the app:
Space gives you a replacement icon for your time and attention sucks of choice, whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat. Whenever you open that app, you’re presented with a twelve second pause, and the app asks you to breathe. The idea is to help you consciously enter into your social feeds, rather than mindlessly dive in.
If you compulsively check your feeds during every 30 second break in your day, imagine how this app might change your behavior. Since mindfulness is a key aspect of a happy, meaningful life, an app like this could help a lot of people find more contentment and avoid a ton of self-induced stress. Brown contacted Apple for an explanation and was told this: “any app designed to help people use their phones less is unacceptable for distribution in the App Store.”
This is where it gets real, kind of like that time when all the heads of the big tobacco companies stood before Congress and raised their right hands and swore they had no idea (“Really? It does that?”) that tobacco causes anything worse than smoker’s breath, and we all knew that they knew. While Apple will never come right out and admit it, this is undoubtedly part of their business model, and they are not alone. Why does Google give away its search results, give away Gmail, give away Google Docs, etc. etc.? Simple: the more time you spend online, the more ads served up by Google you will see, which is how they generate 2/3 of their revenue. Ultimately it’s just a numbers game: keep ’em online and they will see ads.
If tech companies want you to stay on their sites and use their devices, and most of us enjoy doing just that, what could be the harm? While it is hard to imagine, humans actually lived entire (admittedly miserable) lives for millennia before the iPhone and Facebook were carried down the mountain to mankind. These technologies now occupy the largest single chunk of many people’s day (more than two hours, on average). And since they are so new we know almost nothing about their long-term impact on users; you know, like the way people smoked tobacco, or swabbed skin abrasions with toxic mercury, or used opium as a cough syrup, or wore mullets for centuries, until research demonstrated how harmful these practices are.
But we’re starting to learn.
This 2012 study verifies what most of us already know: low quality online interactions make you feel worse. You should know this, but if you are spending a lot of time in running debates or bashing (anyone or anything) you may be winning battles, but you are losing the war, and whether these kinds of interactions occur in meatspace or online, the damage is just as real.
But this study takes it all one step further. It’s a big study, roughly nine times the size of the other one, and if you are at all into research I can tell you it employs an elegant, multi-wave, longitudinal design. OK maybe that’s just me, so for all the rest of you, here are the findings, and they are short and sweet and simple and I’m putting them in one of those fancy quote blocks that I save for really amazing/terrifying stuff:
The more you use Facebook, the worse you feel.
This is pretty straight-forward. The authors checked to make sure that it wasn’t just a case of sadder people using Facebook to help themselves feel better (it wasn’t). They tracked people for two full years so this was not a case of just hitting folks on a bad day.
These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.
This fits with what people have told me (“Facebook makes me depressed”) and what I observe in many of my students: their frantic clicking is not the behavior of someone casually enjoying a moment of relaxation, but that of a lab rat impulsively pushing a lever that delivers cocaine, or a smoker speed-walking outside for a much-needed hit of nicotine.
Some of you are already thinking, “Yeah right Mark, you post this stuff on Facebook so who’s the hypocrite now?” Yep, week in and week out I am on there twice for each bit I write: once to post it, and a second time an hour later to correct the typos that Laura finds for me, so my 20 minutes per week (not per day) puts me at the low (unprofitable) end of use, and hopefully at the high end of happiness and mental health. Facebook only likes me as a user because I trick all of you into spending more time on there….
I could share another thousand words on the possible reasons behind this finding, but frankly who cares? If a study this large demonstrated that eating while wearing mismatched socks would cause you to lose ten pounds we wouldn’t wait for a follow up study–we would already be headed down the hall to our sock drawers. I’m no Luddite; I love technology as much as anyone else, but I am also imminently practical and pragmatic and I am ultimately interested in what works. As someone who has pursued happiness for a long time, if the data said that more time on Facebook would make me happier, I would give it a serious try. But despite what Facebook and Apple ads want us to believe, the arrow points the other way; social media is free in dollar terms, but exacts an emotional toll, withdrawing from an account that is sometimes a little low to start with. Apparently many of the faces on Facebook are frowning.
When it comes to social media and its effects on people, you and I are lab rats in the largest human behavior experiment in history, and the early results are a little scary. Maybe it’s time to drop out of the study.
If you can’t figure out what to do instead of social media, here are a few options.
And if you would like to keep using social media without all the political stuff, here is a cool browser extension to help you do that.
Finally, if you are leaving Facebook you can follow this blog to find out about these posts anyway.