Commentary / World

Social media looks like the new opiate of the masses

by Noah Smith

Bloomberg

With Facebook enduring a wave of public criticism for its cavalier approach to user privacy, it’s becoming more apparent how important social media has become. I suspect it will be many years before the true scale and scope of the changes are appreciated, and even then much will never be fully understood. The era when humans interacted mainly by gathering in physical space, or maintained personal networks through one-to-one connections, has drawn to a close, and the next generation won’t even really understand what that era was like. Social media has changed the meaning of human life itself.

It has also made a lot of money and investors have given companies like Facebook Inc., Snap Inc. and Twitter Inc. multibillion-dollar market valuations.

There’s even an argument that the true economic value created by these companies is much greater than their profits — or, in Snap’s case, their potential future profits — suggest. For the most part, the services are free to use. But given how much time people spend using them, it’s probably true that they would be willing to pay a lot to keep being able to enjoy social media. In economics, this is known as consumer surplus — the amount of value that consumers get without having to pay for it.

But many of us who lived through the shift from Internet 1.0 to the new age of social media can’t help but feel a nagging worry. In addition to concerns about privacy, electoral influence and online abuse, social media seems like it has many of the qualities of an addictive drug.

Research isn’t conclusive on whether social media addiction is real. But it certainly has some negative side effects that loosely resemble the downsides of recreational drugs. In 2011, psychologists Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths wrote a paper that found:

“Negative correlates of (social media) usage include the decrease in real life social community participation and academic achievement, as well as relationship problems, each of which may be indicative of potential addiction.”

Meanwhile, a number of more recent studies find similarities between social media use and addictive behavior. And experiments found that smartphone deprivation induced anxiety among young people, a phenomenon that certainly has parallels to drug withdrawal.

That certainly doesn’t mean that everyone who uses social media is a junkie. Evidence shows that moderate usage is not harmful. That fits with my own experience — I find that I derive great enjoyment from Facebook, which I use in moderation, but am often made anxious and irritable by Twitter, which I use much more.

It’s the heaviest users who may be in the most danger — a recent survey found that a quarter of Americans are online “almost constantly.” And social media use is going up relentlessly worldwide. Whereas once the internet offered an escape from the real world, now the real world is a much-needed escape from the internet.

Now, it’s important to emphasize that just because a product harms some people doesn’t mean it’s bad for society overall. Cars kill tens of thousands each year in the U.S. alone and certainly pose a much bigger threat than social media addiction. But no one thinks about banning auto travel, since the benefits for our economy and social lives are so huge.

Nor are addictive drugs always bad. Many Americans consume caffeine, often in large amounts every day. Some economists have suggested that drug addiction is a rational choice, with users choosing to pay the price for pleasure.

Other economists, however, theorize that addiction can result from short-sightedness. If people are more oriented toward the short term than they realize, they may incorrectly believe that they’ll be able to exert self-control and stop using an addictive substance in the future. When the addiction becomes too strong to quit, they may find themselves trapped in a situation they never would have chosen had they known what they were getting into.

This interpretation of addiction seems especially likely, given the fact that people who haven’t been addicted don’t know what it’s like — I can tell myself that I’d be able to quit cigarettes easily, but there’s no way to be sure until it’s too late.

If social media really does act on many users in a manner loosely analogous to cigarettes or heroin, that means the benefits are less than people’s willingness to pay. Junkies would pay quite a lot for their fix, but that doesn’t mean the money would be well-spent.

Much more research is obviously needed before we conclude that social media is like tobacco. And even if it is, the harm would need to be very substantial in order to get government policy involved in limiting social media use. That seems unlikely. But even if social media is worth the costs, it still means that much of society’s resources — capital investment, and the time and effort of the smartest workers — have been put into creating more pleasurable drugs for the populace to become addicted to. And that’s a disquieting thought. Whereas Karl Marx declared that religion is the opiate of the masses, our modern capitalists may have invented a better one.

A former assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist.