Boyle, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Cognitive Sciences Department at UC San Diego and a graduate student in the Master of Public Health Program at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Carlsbad.
Policymakers grapple with an embarrassing truth that the public has been ‘played’ by the social media titans as they count with the revelations of Francoise Haugen, Facebook’s whistleblower. Now what?
The reveal: The makers of Facebook, Google and Twitter are using sophisticated neuroscientific knowledge to add addiction and habit-building functionality to social media platforms. Social media platforms use gamification tactics to manipulate users into staying engaged with the app longer. User connectivity is directly related to ad exposure and increased profits. Manipulated users win small, random prizes that reward their brains with dopamine hits – the dopamine effect fuels a compulsive habit-building loop. neuroscientist at MIT Anne Graybiel confirms that addictive behavior and habit formation physically alter the structure of the brain. Structural changes in the brain make it almost impossible to resist inciting and addictive behavior.
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Social media companies design their apps specifically for the teen market. Adolescents are inherently more sensitive to rewards and risky behavior.
As the adolescent brain evolves into an adult brain, decision-making brain structures are uniquely sensitive to environmental signals. the dopamine receptors reach their highest life density during this stage of development. The density of receptors skews adolescent decision-making towards rewarding stimuli and leaves them vulnerable to compulsions and social media addictions.
Recent research in neuroscience confirms that adolescent brains are more sensitive to cue-based learning than adults. For example, habits are formed when the behavior is triggered repeatedly, and the repeated behavior in response to signals becomes rigid and difficult to change. This finding is important for understanding why teens are unusually sensitive to social media notification signals.
The formation of addictive behavior during adolescence can have a long-term destructive effect on mental health. In a longitudinal study, André Lapierre from the University of Arizona has shown that smartphone use is a direct risk factor for depression and loneliness in older adolescents. This study is crucial because it shows that smartphone use preceded the decline in mental health.
Ironically, these repercussions on mental health have led many social media developers at prohibit their children from using smartphones. In some cases, they go as far as lock out devices they have contributed to development.
The use of social networks can be harmful to the adolescent population. the Facebook documents leak indicate that officials were aware of the potential for harm to adolescents. Yet they have advanced with technology that could specifically harm the mental health of this vulnerable population. Here, policymakers must use the weight of scientific evidence to warn and protect this age group.
Regulators need to steer social media platforms away from incentive features that require users to constantly check their smartphone app.
Additionally, the social media ecosystem relies on harnessing adolescent data to promote highly personalized content. Driven by ad revenue and profit, such personalized and compelling content has the effect of engaging and maximizing application usage and scrolling time. Here, regulators have the option of requiring social media platforms to meet data protection and transparency standards.
Additionally, our lawmakers can ban addictive digital tactics, toxic cyberbullying, and the use of personal data associated with a minor.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is the federal law that protects Internet companies from all liability for user-generated content posted on their platforms. Policy makers can demand that content presented on their platform respect applicable rights laws covering libel, slander, and defamation to help fight cyberbullying. Such regulations would encourage technology companies to take responsibility for the content of their applications.
Social media platforms are not simply transmission channels for content generated by third parties. They use artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to retain and control information on their platform. Their involvement in data management disqualifies them from Section 230 Protections. The Communications Decency Act was passed in 1996, long before we knew about the impact of social media on the minds of adolescents. It’s time to stand up for children, update the section 230 exclusions, and protect our nation’s future.