Remember when social media was going to enable us to make friends with the world? Instead it’s mutated into a digital Thunderdome, a dystopian Coliseum where complete strangers get vicious with each other. Even the august office of the President isn’t immune, as the tweeter-in-chief uses social media to issue personal attacks, playing his part in turning a technology that was meant to connect people into a forum for alienation and aggression.
As seen in recent elections on both sides of the Atlantic, social media ratchets up the hype and hate of political campaigning. Emboldened by echo chambers that reinforce our own belief systems, we’re increasingly unwilling to constructively engage with opposing ideas. Instead, we shout louder, reducing complex ideas to witty memes and populist hashtags, polarizing the debate and shrinking the space for common cause, chasing likes and retweets with simplistic, extreme opinions.
When social media is simmering with so much rage, are we really so surprised when this boils over into real life? Although the reasons behind acts of political violence are complicated, when James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill., opened fire on the Republican congressional baseball team, injuring Rep. Steve Scalise and four others, he did so as a man who had spent years railing against the party on Facebook, and was a virulent critic of President Trump, writing in March for the “destruction” of “Trump & Co.”
It’s long past time to question what all this online hate is doing to us. Not everyone will be radicalised to acts of political violence, but cyberbullying and aggression are increasingly rife online, with worrying consequences for our real world interactions and well-being.
Recent research suggests that social media use is changing the way our brains function, turning us into digital addicts, robbing us of empathy, and making us more prone to depression.
A team of psychologists at the University of Chicago led by Wilhelm Hofmann found that social media use triggers a dopamine reward in the brain, making it more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol. Little wonder, it’s estimated the average Internet user now spends more than two hours per day on social media to get their fix of likes and followers.
But rather than connecting us, this “social” activity may actually be driving us further apart. In his 2014 book, The “End of Absence,” Michael Harris presents evidence that suggests social media use means young people now have substantially less empathy than previous generations. Living in a virtual world where they consume each other’s lives as a form of entertainment, the connected generation is losing the ability to truly relate to other people.
Researchers at the University of Sussex found that people who spend significant amounts of time engaged in screen-based media activities see a reduction in the density of the neurons in the regions of the brain associated with empathy and emotional control, impairing their ability to deal with socio-emotional issues. It seems that our brains are being reshaped by social media use, and instead of bringing us closer together, these technologies are shrinking our capacity to understand or identify with each other.
And while our interactions with Facebook friends and Instagram followers may seem authentic, these virtual connections are no substitute for real world friendships and support networks. A University of Pittsburgh study conducted by Brian Primack found that people’s propensity to suffer from depression increased with the number of social media platforms they use. And researchers from Brown University have discovered that young people who have negative experiences on Facebook are 3.2 times more likely to suffer from depression than those who don’t.
Unlike our devices, which can be switched off, we carry the legacy of our online interactions into the real world. Depression at the perfect lives we see depicted on Facebook may lead us to isolate ourselves from our real friends. And our addiction to social media might mean we leave our kids to play on their iPads while we obsess over Facebook or Twitter. Our anger at a fake story about Pizzagate might cause us to snap at complete strangers.
It seems that our experiences in the digital Thunderdome can take a very real toll and are shaping how we engage with the real world. In light of what scientists can now tell us about what social media is doing to our brains, we should take special care to ensure that we engage in civil discourse and do our best to minimise the extremism, hostility and anger that can help propel people towards violence.
Hamdy is an author and screenwriter. His forthcoming crime thriller is “Pendulum.”