According to Eircom research released this week, there’s a new compulsion embedding itself into Irish life.
It’s changing the way we think and communicate, a creeping epidemic tempting us with quick hits during every moment of downtime.
It seems clear that Ireland is addicted to social media.
Our new tendency towards constant connection creates a fertile landscape for this impulse. Eircom’s data, from their bi-annual National Household Survey of over 1,00 people, indicates that tablet ownership has doubled in the past twelve months, from 25% to 41%. Almost two-thirds of Irish people now own a smartphone and over 1.8 million us now visit Facebook at least every day.
We’re also one of the most open Facebook populations in in Europe, with more friends on average than those in Italy, Germany or Spain and we share over 20 million photos on the site each month. But it’s not just Facebook. We send 1 million tweets each day. 60% of teens now use Snapchat, while sites like Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin are becoming critical means of communication within our society.
Of course, on the one hand this is a positive thing. Two out of Irish three people believe technological advances will enhance our lives in the future. We can send images to our emigrants across the world through WhatsApp groups and easily maintain relationships that previously would have been difficult.
Twitter has also changed our media landscape for the better. The site is now our default first port of call for breaking news. We follow sports events through the prism of journalist or attendee tweets. Importantly, the channel is by its nature democratic, allowing normal people to have their voice heard by a wider audience.
But according to international author Nicholas Carr, there’s another more sinister side to our social media dependence. In his book ‘The Shallows’ the writer puts forward a strong counter argument. “Our minds are essentially plastic and constantly changing in response to our experiences. When we go online, we enter a world of hurried, distracted thinking and superficial learning. The net delivers repetitive, intensive stimulus that results in rapid change to our brain circuits and functions.” It seems our reliance on social media is literally re-wiring our brain. And it’s a vicious circle – the more time we spend online using these services, the more we rely on them.
This isn’t a uniquely Irish problem. In the UK, social media addiction has been a recognised illness since 2013, while research from institutions like Chicago University has found social media can be even more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. The government of South Korea, one of the most connected countries in the world, sees the broader spectrum of digital addiction as a serious health problem. State sponsored programs have been put in place to help young people as young as three to control their use of devices and the internet.
In London, the first ‘technology addiction service’ has been launched in Nightingale Hospital, headed by, technology addiction specialist Dr Richard Graham. According to Graham, there’s a simple reason for our addiction – social media offers us a unique pleasure. Positive affirmation in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ provide a burst of dopamine, which in turn makes us even more addicted. “Individuals constantly check their phones for messages through social media apps. This is because the body gets a rush of endorphins; it’s rewarding to the user every time a notification appears and we learn to associate new hits of social media with pleasure or stimulation.” Harvard researchers in 2012 found that this sensation invokes the same part of the brain that is associated with the sensation of pleasure, the same pleasure that we get from eating food like chocolate, getting money or even having sex.
Through Nightingale, social addicts can complete a a 28-day residential digital detox program, which encourages them to think about their relationship with their phone and social networks and teaches them skills to help them to switch off. Graham says that programmes “centre upon controlled withdrawal, which may start with a few days of complete abstinence followed by a controlled reintroduction. After the initial 72-hour detox, the treatment varies according to the severity of the case and the level of adaption. The challenge starts when we reintroduce technology back into their lives in a controlled manner, as technology is an integral part of our everyday lives. So it is important that a good relationship habit is established.”
We’re also fighting against the power of big business. For sites like Facebook and Twitter, it’s in their interest to keep us hooked, since they make their money via advertising that’s heavily reliant on times spent on their site. Cognitive teases are implemented to maintain our attention for as long as possible and this certainly seems to be working. According to Dr. Richard Graham, “with social media constantly available, this can develop into a compulsion to constantly be plugged in so that we don’t ever risk feeling that we are missing out, or stepping off a ladder.”
Indeed, Eircom’s research indicates that 46% of 16-24 year olds admit ‘FOMO’, or fear of missing out on something big due to not being constantly online, and a quarter of all people admit to being online at least 4-5 times per day. Tom Chatfield, author of multiple books on technology, including the acclaimed ‘How to Thrive in the Digital Age’, feels there’s a certain responsibility on the companies to self regulate. “For a growing number of people, there is a sense that they don’t quite control or understand their own habits around social media, and that’s something is happening that they vaguely resent and worry about. I do feel that the companies cannot simply wash their hands of the fact that their businesses rely on a model that is almost casino-like. It thrives on the ‘one more click’ effect and on careful engineering to privilege this kind of relationship between user and service.”
As a consequence of our reliance on broadcasting our lives, we also fabricate manicured personas for ourselves online. In essence, we evaluate our own experiences against what we believe our experiences should be, and create an artificial perfect online self. That couples date night check-ins and perfect family selfies? It’s likely they’re not replicated in real life. According to the Eircom survey, 43% of Irish 16-24 year olds admit to religiously editing their online selves.
Unlike in the UK, the Irish government has shown no willingness to tackle social media in a productive manner yet. Issues like privacy, cyberbulling and mental health are intertwined with the growing importance of social media in our lives, so what role does regulation play, or is the freedom of the social web too big to be tamed? According to Tom Chatfield, open dialogue is critical. “I feel that we need to find ways of talking usefully about how seductive and integral to identity social media is becoming. I would strongly advocate efforts to bring a focus on people’s relationships with technology in general from a young age, as part of their education. I think there’s room not only for a governmental role, but also for a more prominent external system of regulation and accountability in the ethics of creating these systems that shape our lives and identities”
Eircom’s research correctly terms us a ‘nation of bingers’. What’s clear is that, with an upcoming ‘digital native’ generation, our addiction to social media isn’t going to be suspended any time soon. How that growing dependence shapes our lives, brains and attention spans remains to be seen.