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Humanizing social media: Better late than never

www.sentinelassam.com | November 25, 2023

If you were to ask any set of grandparents what they think their grandchildren are doing wrong, the first thing they would probably think of is, “Get those kids off social media! Always glued to their screens! It is the curse of this generation.” 

While it is true that heavy social media usage is linked to a variety of negative outcomes (Abi-Jaoude et al., 2020), our grandparents are likely to be falling prey to the fundamental attribution error, a term used in social psychology wherein the cause of an individual’s behaviour is attributed to his or her internal psychological makeup and external factors are underemphasized or overlooked (Mcleod, 2023). In this case, our grandparents would be attributing the cause of our behaviour (addiction) solely to our refusal or inability, in their eyes, to get off these platforms, while overlooking the inherently manipulative, addictive, and exploitative nature of social media itself. You see, social media is not just a tool. It has been designed to meet a specific goal, one that is lucrative before anything else (Muha & Muha, 2022). 

And why are we addicted to these platforms? The answer is complex, and the reasons are multifold. Probably the most important reason is that they use our evolutionary wiring against us. If there’s anything we’ve learned from history and our existence on this planet, it’s the fact that human beings cannot survive for very long without losing sweat over how other people perceive them. We are incredibly sensitive to social validation and feedback. Likes, comments, retweets, and tags are all designed to tell us something. And what is that ‘something’? It is whether or not people ‘like’ us; it is what people think of us. 

The uncertainty of these rewards excites and stimulates the brain. You have now created a situation where it cannot stop searching for these rewards, constantly on the hunt, not knowing when or how it will get them. With the incorporation of these rewards into sites like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, these technologists have created a virtual environment that is based primarily on competition, self-promotion, and narcissism. 

What is the competition for? Is it for the attention of other people? Suddenly, pretending you’re the main character becomes okay, because that’s all that matters on these platforms. This is how the main character syndrome becomes normalized (Kilpatrick, 2023). Social media can make us feel like we are all protagonists in a grand drama where every other person is either a sidekick or an antagonist. Most of these platforms are bad at allowing us to access the depth and multidimensionality of human beings. They are bad at helping us move beyond our evolutionary wiring into our higher nature. They reinforce hierarchies, implicitly and explicitly, based on material wealth, appearances, and social standing, and they make it easy for us to attach our value to these problematic definers of self-worth. This is when we have to ask ourselves, as a society, where we really think our worth comes from. We have to collectively reassess our notions of worth, even if it is uncomfortable (it probably will be). 

The impersonal nature of social media can bring out the worst in us. Again, it comes down to evolution. According to Robert Sapolsky, a behavioural scientist, author, and professor of neurological sciences at Stanford University, the brain takes milliseconds to put random faces into the ‘Us-vs-Them’ dichotomy, that is, as belonging to either one’s in-group or out-group (R. Sapolsky, 2023). These decisions are purely based on first impressions (Think, 2021); they do not allow us to look at the entirety of what makes up another person. 

Much like social media, where we are exposed to snapshots of other people’s lives and brief moments in time. This is when it becomes easy to judge and demean, to make quick assumptions, and to spew hatred at people we do not really know. Cultivating non-judgement and empathy often requires real human connection, scenarios in which we are not just exposed to the superficial characteristics that make up another person, as we so often are on social media, but in which we can see other people similar to the way we see ourselves: breathing, living beings with stories, flaws, insecurities, and vulnerabilities. It is in these spaces that we can truly empathise with others, the others we have already categorised as ‘Thems’. 

True and prolonged human contact is essential to being able to move towards a place where we can paint a complete picture of other people, which social media does not provide. A lot of us are using social media without being completely aware of how it works and how it uses our psychology against us. We know how it makes us feel, but we do not know why it makes us feel that way. And as long as we remain unaware of these things, we will be slaves to our technology.

It is only when we become aware that we can demand better alternatives. The Centre for Humane Technology is making brilliant efforts to create technology that is good for our hearts and souls. The kind of social media that we, as a society, should aim for is one that is based on community, not competition. We want our social media platforms to facilitate trust within ourselves, as opposed to making us ask other people who we are and how much value we hold. We want them to help us become more at peace with our lives, not to provide an arena for constant self-doubt. These platforms need to consider enhancing our well-being instead of taking away from it. We want our social media to help us connect more deeply with the people around us and, more importantly, with ourselves.

This article has been authored by Kimaya Natekar, an Undergraduate Student, FLAME University, and Prof. Moitrayee Das, Faculty of Psychology, FLAME University.

(Source:- https://www.sentinelassam.com/editorial/humanizing-social-media-better-late-than-never-677459 )