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Social media: the Vegas slot machine

Posted by Fiona Todd on 28th September 2020

The question of whether social media is bad for our mental health is something that has been debated for several years.

This isn’t a surprise considering the fact that self-harm and suicide rates have seen a dramatic increase since children gained access to platforms like Facebook and Twitter on their phones over a decade ago.

But if these platforms have such a detrimental impact on our mental wellbeing, then why are we so afraid to hit ‘deactivate’?

Last week I watched Netflix’s latest documentary, The Social Dilemma, which I can honestly say is one of the most insightful docudramas I’ve watched recently (apart from the Tiger King, which helped me forget the fact we were in the midst of a global pandemic).

The documentary — which combines real-life interviews with former tech giant execs and a fictional story about the impact of social media on an American family — uncovers a frightening truth about the reason why we’re hooked on scrolling through our Instagram and Facebook accounts.

It all comes down to the fact that human behaviour and habits have been altered by the very existence of such technology.

Additionally, frequent updates to these platforms – including the movement of pulling down to refresh your feed for new content – have all been designed with the aim to encourage you to stay there longer.

In fact, in the documentary, Joe Toscano, former Experience Design Consultant for Google, explains how when you pull down to refresh the page, you’ll experience new content at the top. When you pull down and refresh again, it’s new – every single time.

They want us to continue repeating this, and as Google’s former Design Ethicist, Tristan Harris explains, “You don’t know when you’re going to get it and you don’t know if you’re going to get it. Which operates just like the slot machines in Vegas.”

If we consider how addictive gambling can be, it’s no surprise that we’re perpetually glued to our social feeds looking for something new to appear.

If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product

 While all social media platforms are free for us to use, according to The Social Dilemma, that doesn’t mean we’re not all paying some form of price.

In fact, social giants are making billions of dollars out of our behaviour, as we give away our personal information for free, and are monetising our daily activities — maximising it for higher advertising revenue.

Every single action that we make online is constantly monitored — helping social platforms to gain a deep understanding of who we are as individuals, what we like and dislike, even right down to what makes us happy or sad.

All of this personal information is then fed into an algorithm which can depict what information can trigger an emotional response from us, all with the aim of keeping us engaged and fixated.

Looking for the next hit

They’ve already made us addicted to endlessly scrolling through our feeds by showing us the content we want to see. But what’s more dangerous and addictive is the dopamine hit we experience every time we receive a new “like” or comment.

The world is addicted to dopamine. Dopamine is essentially a “happy chemical”, a hormone and neurotransmitter, which drives our inner need for reward, motivation, memory, attention, and even regulating body movements. Every time we experience that ‘feel-good factor’, we crave more and more.

So the next time you go to publish a new photo or update your Facebook status, take a step back and question your motive behind it.

Is it because you genuinely want to share something with your friends/followers, or is it because you’re really just craving that next fix of dopamine?

While I don’t think this documentary will encourage us to detach from our phones any time soon, it’s certainly fascinating to understand how tech giants have succeeded in using psychological persuasion to ensure we all now have an unconscious attachment to our devices in order to keep us coming back for more.



Fiona Todd

Fiona’s early PR career began in a Hollywood film studio, but she left the glamour of entertainment in favour of the variety and greater opportunity offered by tech PR. Fi’s calm demeanour and pragmatic approach has helped her win the hearts and minds of her clients ever since. The secret to Fiona’s zen-like approach to account management is her love of yoga, helping her maintain mental and physical wellbeing after dealing with the daily demands of busy agency life.