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Image courtesy of: Joey Klarenbeek

Social Media Giants Are Hacking Your Brain — This is How

Their mind hijacks have gotten out of hand


Joshua was a bright, determined, loving, social kid. An excellent student admired by his peers and loved by everyone within the community. A comedy and music aficionado. Joshua had an incredible sense of humor, always making jokes while playing riffs with his guitar. Joyful and creative. Unstoppably charming and caring. One-day last summer, everything dramatically changed. The 13-year-old boy abruptly dropped all his hobbies. All of the sudden he stopped playing the guitar, doing funny bits. At first, it seemed like he was just going through puberty. Soon, everyone noticed that he was, indeed, distant, melancholic, subdued. He was unrecognizable. A new person. Nobody knew what was happening to him. Everybody thought he was doing drugs, some even suggested that he was under the influence of a radical sect, a twisted mentor, part of a gang. There was something disturbing behind his strange new behavior, but nobody could put their finger on it. His mom even started thinking her son was suffering some sort of mental disease. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth. Her only child had been hijacked by a stronger entity. One she pleasingly invited to their house. An iPhone. Joshua had been hacked by social media and its unquestionable power. His brain was hijacked, turning him into an addict.

By now you probably know someone who can’t put their phone down or that is innately addicted to it. It’s merely difficult not to see anybody who is engaged in any of these habit-forming technologies. Nearly everywhere we look at and at all times people are immersed in their smartphones.

Social media companies have deliberately designed their products to hijack your brain. They hire the best designers and engineers to crack the code and use brain hacking techniques to make their users check their phones constantly. They come up with features in the forms of likes, heart-shaped icons, streaks, and followers. The only purpose of these apps — thriving in the attention economy market — is to trigger our brains into the instant gratification lifestyle, ultimately exploiting our mind’s weaknesses.

Whether in the form of a like (Facebook), a binary like/dislike format (YouTube), or a heart-shaped system (Instagram, and later Twitter) Silicon Valley has conceived a multitude of forms of innovative ways to gamify our nonstop need for social validation. Unfortunately for us, they are getting away with their purpose, and we should be concerned about the future long-term consequences these habits might have on our society.

As a result, our brains are already suffering the consequences of these calculated actions. A recent study showed how the mere presence of a smartphone damages our cognitive capacities. Several studies have also shown the harmful effects social media has on mental health, anxiety, and depression.

“We all understand the joys of our always-wired world — the connections, the validations, the laughs … the info. … But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs”. Andrew Sullivan

Companies like Facebook have found a loophole in the way human interaction and socializing have changed over the years. Our never-stopping globalized world has made us vulnerable when it comes to social connection, we have lost our way. This new social inability is the root of the problem and the reason social media sites have proliferated so successfully. The basic principle of these social sites — now ad companies — is to create a ‘value’ based on our activity by using intentionally attention hacking psychology techniques, and covering it with an inexistent cover of social value. It’s brain hacking at its utmost.

But these persuasive neurological techniques aren’t new. Food companies have been using them for years, manipulating the combination of salt, sugar and fat, by appealing to certain flavors that our bodies will end up craving. That’s why you can’t only have one pretzel, but the entire bag.

Just like the food industry manipulates our innate biases for salt, sugar and fat with perfectly engineered combinations. Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook are built under the ¨variable rewards¨ scheme. According to Tristan Harris former Google design ethicist, the tech industry coerces our innate biases for: “Social Reciprocity (we’re built to get back to others), Social Approval (we’re built to care what others think of us), Social Comparison (how we’re doing with respect to our peers) and Novelty-Seeking (we’re built to seek surprises over the predictable)”.

With every post, like, tweet or comment they are anticipating users’ social validation. These intermittent variable rewards work like a slot machine, and are key to their business and the main part of their play on our psychological vulnerabilities. By creating expectations, they are setting up our brain, scheduling users to come back compulsively for more. A powerful control and addictiveness tool that is highly profitable, with Facebook earning $10.3 billion in revenue, an increase 47 percent over the same quarter last year.

Another hijack used by social platforms is that of social reciprocity or tit-for-tat. The principle behind here is used when someone sends you an invitation or message, making you feel the sudden pressure to respond immediately. Facebook does this by letting you know when someone has read your message, or by developing the harmless set of wavy dots that appear as someone types a message. These features are designed to make our minds go berserk, since as species humans have evolved to diligently respond to the tribe, to depend on each other; people deep down want to feel connected to others, we crave a sense of belonging, approval, and love. We are social animals who have survived because of our empathy for others, and social media giants exploit these traits in their favor.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” — Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook

Facebook and Snapchat are knowingly programming people unencumbered. As Mr. Harris told 60 minutes: “They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money. They are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people. They are programming people.

It’s fair to state that we currently are facing a societal crisis of attention and focus. Our lives have been invaded by a disease full of alerts and notifications. These never-ending scrolling choices are shaping society and the way we behave as a whole.

Being enslaved to our phones has become the new normal. An inherent part of today’s human life and interaction. There’s even a new term coined for it ‘phubbing’ to describe the new social practice of snubbing others in favor of our mobile phone, seems like lately, people are more used to this phenomenon than they were before. This pulling-out habit is already taking its toll negatively on how we spend time with our loved-ones, how we work and how we engage with each other. What’s even sadder and more disturbing about this attention phenomenon is that those who choose not to wander the world with their noses dived to a screen, are now being considered weird and creepy. It’s as if they’re irreverently insulting them by being aware of our surroundings and caring about face-to-face interactions.

What we often see is people glued to their screens, experiencing a free ride in the social world, having harmless fun in the form of innocent ‘double-tapping hearts’ but, is this experience really free? Or does it come with a price tag? Unfortunately, these products aren’t free, social media companies sell our data to advertisers, the more we stare at our phones the more data they collect about us, and the more ad places they can sell.

If you’re not paying for a service then you are the product, and you also are being used as a guinea pig. Tech companies strive to get a better version of their algorithms through daily experiments, so while we use their products millions of computer calculations are being developed to improve our ‘online experience’.

You don’t pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what’s being sold there.” — Ramsay Brown — Co-founder of Dopamine Labs

No doubt we are at the cusp of this technological transformation, one that is frequently characterized as the revolution of all forms of digital communications. We must not forget that these tech monopolies are here to make money, that’s the sole core of their business, and they will do whatever it takes to continue growing. This unconstrained growth could result in a social collapse if we don’t intervene in time.

We must not allow ourselves to think for a second that this is the new “normal”. With great power comes great responsibility, in the same way, that food companies had to be required to list ingredients and nutrients in their products, and as we as citizens demanded ethical environmental practices for tons of businesses. It’s time we demand of these companies more ethical design and usage practices. Social media needs to be regulated just as any other industry. Why in the hell are we still allowing them to rule the world unregulated?