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Social Media’s Distortion of the Real World

Constant exposure to idealized online images impacts our expectations and worldview

How does excessive social media use affect our perceptions of the real world? Writers Mark Miller and Ben White wrote a piece at Aeon on social media through the perspective of “predictive processing,” a term used in neuroscience and cognition. Predictive processing involves the brain’s capacity to predict error, danger, or some future event, and urge us to act accordingly. (That’s my basic, layman’s understanding of it, full disclosure!) White and Miller use temperature as an example, noting how the body may respond to a change of the environment by closing a window or grabbing a blanket to keep warm. Being able to respond appropriately to our surroundings depends on the accuracy of our mental model of the real world. The more we adapt to our surroundings, the better we can predict and respond.

Mental Models of the World

That’s where social media can wreak some real havoc. Miller and White write,

Social media is a spectacularly effective method for warping our generative models. It overloads them with bad evidence about both the world around us and who we are. The space between being and appearing is potentially vast – with a few swipes, we can dramatically alter our appearance, or retake the same picture 20 times until our face exudes precisely the calm mastery of life we wish to project. As social media platforms develop features that allow us to present ourselves inauthentically, those platforms become all the more powerful bad-evidence generators, flooding the predictive systems of their users with inaccurate information, telling us that the world is full of impossibly beautiful, happy people, living wonderfully luxurious and leisurely lives.

-Mark Miller & Ben White, Social media and the neuroscience of predictive processing | Aeon Essays

Social media, as Robert J. Marks notes in this article here, tempts users to think everyone in the world (except for them, of course) is living a radically bizarre and beautiful life. Everyone is living high all the time. Constant exposure to those idealized, distorted online images inevitably impacts our expectations and vision of our environment and experience. Now, curating one’s self-image is the only viable way to manage the uncertainty of life. With our “generative models” now skewed by social media, we take irrational measures to counter the anxiety. After all, look how beautiful and amazing everyone else looks! Trouble is, that’s not the way the world really works.

Appearance is Everything

Miller and White begin their article with a brief profile of a British “influencer” who spent thousands of dollars to surgically craft the perfect face. If a tweet doesn’t get enough likes within a certain timeframe, he deletes them. Everything is about social recognition and feedback. They go on to cite the work of Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle (1967), who wrote, “Having to appearing – all ‘having’ must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances. At the same time all individual reality has become social.” If Debord saw this as a problem in the sixties, he would probably claim we have a full-blown crisis on our hands today.

The authors also nuance the mainstream assumption that dopamine is the main culprit in social media addiction, writing,

Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t dopamine per se that’s rewarding, but the reduction in error that accompanies it. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine simply encode and entrench the behaviours that we learn to anticipate will deliver these rewards.

They relate this to predictive processing. If we can predict a certain pleasurable outcome, odds are we will continually return to the behavior. Hence, the addiction.

Akin to pornography addiction, which grossly parodies sexual intimacy, social media hijacks the natural human need and longing for society and community. White and Miller comment,

On social media – just as with online porn – high levels of novelty and excess mean that the reward system is kicked into overdrive. It’s no wonder that a report in 2019 found that the average teenager in the US now spends more than seven hours a day looking at a screen. Through social media, hyperstimulation works to reorganise our predictive model and restructure our habits: we wake up and reach for our phone, never leave home without it, and constantly feel drawn toward our phones even when in the company of friends.

Getting Our Real Lives Back

The excess novelty in social media and the certainty that someone will always “be there” keeps us hooked. And yet today we find ourselves in a crisis of isolation, with marriage rates in decline, higher suicide rates among teenagers (especially girls), and the decay of social institutions like church and family. Robert J. Marks also spoke to the negative repercussions of social media addiction a few weeks ago, writing,

Young adults who use social media are three times as likely to suffer from depression. Depression can lead to suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, female suicides aged 15-24 increased by 87 percent over the past 20 years and male suicides increased by 30 percent. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry says suicide is now the second leading cause of death for “children, adolescents, and young adults age 15-to-24-year-olds.”

-Robert J. Marks, The Asbury Revival and the Cure for TikTok | Mind Matters

The data he cites isn’t spurious. It’s sadly real, as I’m sure many readers can attest to just by observation or experience. White and Miller add their own grim diagnosis at the end of their essay:

If it turns out that engagement with hyperstimulants can lead to conditions such as addiction and depression, and as long as it remains the case that more engagement means more profit, then designers of social media will have a de facto interest in implementing designs that lead to human misery. This emerging scientific picture adds to the growing consensus that digital hyperstimulants are a threat to our wellbeing – and lends weight to those voices calling for change in how social media is designed, operated and regulated.

Organizations like Talk More Tech Less, founded by Dawn Wible, are striving to advocate for healthy screen time use among teens and young adults. The upcoming Mind Matters podcast episode will feature Dawn and her inspiring work, but in the meantime, we can all take steps to reclaim our attention and time. It might be uncomfortable to embrace silence and say no to stimulation, but as Andrew McDiarmid notes in his recent post, doing so may yield deep and true reward.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Social Media’s Distortion of the Real World