Two industries refer to their customers as users: pharmaceutical and social media. A bit dramatic? Probably. A valid point? Yes.
Do you remember from your childhood (or maybe it was last week), the worst part about going to McDonald’s? It wasn’t waiting for your food, it wasn’t eating your food, and it certainly wasn’t playing in the PlayPlace.
The most disappointing point of every fast food meal is when you scrape the bottom of your fry pod and come up empty. At that moment in time, it doesn’t seem possible that you have already eaten all your fries, and it doesn’t matter how full you are, you want more. This is by design.
Fast food restaurants want to leave you ever so slightly dissatisfied. They develop their products to be as addicting as possible for this exact purpose. They want you to come back. They want you to buy more food. They want you to spend more money. A repeat customer is worth a lot more than a once-a-year road-tripping family of four stopping by. That’s not a conspiracy. That’s just business.
Social media is a never-ending bucket of fries.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and [insert your platform of choice] have engineered a way to give you the “satisfaction” of never running out of proverbial fries. It comes in the form of infinite scrolling.
While you’re using it, you know it’s not the healthiest option. You know you should probably be doing something else. You know it’s only going to leave you dissatisfied. And yet, it’s so hard to stop. An invisible force just keeps sucking you into the vortex.
Just one more post, just one more picture, just five more minutes. It sounds so harmless in your head. It sounds so logical. But when it comes to fast food and social media, logic goes out the window. When the companies you’re competing against for your time, attention, and health are at a race to the bottom of the brain stem (and are backed by billions of dollars), you can’t rely on your evolved prefrontal cortex to logic your way to a healthy balance.
Remember, your balance isn’t profitable for them. Burger King doesn’t want you to have balance. They don’t want you to make your rounds to McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, and Arby’s. They want you to be a bona fide regular: the kind of customer that’s on a first-name basis with all the employees in the drive-through. Again, that’s just business.
Vampires and Salads
Can you think of a single time where you came away from using social media more energized than when you first opened the app? I don’t mean the artificial high you get from the likes on your latest post. No, how does a binge on social media leave you feeling?
Is it that sober satisfaction you get from finishing a slightly bland, but healthy salad? Or is it the heavy, lethargic feeling you suffer from after a trip to the local fast food joint? I’m willing to bet that 95% of the time, it’s the latter.
Social media, in the way it’s used today, is a vampire. It drains you of your energy, your time, and your peace. I personally would rather eat a salad than be bitten by Dracula. That being said, some people can use social media without feeling addicted. They can scroll through their apps and not feel compelled to keep scrolling. To them, social media does add to their life. For these people, balance comes naturally. They can stop eating their fries as soon as they’re full. They can close Instagram when it starts to feel depressing. This article is not for those people.
Remember that documentary? The one with the guy who went to McDonald’s every day for a month and got really sick… Supersize Me was the name. It came out when I was just a toddler, but I remember being forced to watch it in health class a few years later.
When that documentary, among others, started making waves, people could no longer deny the damaging effects of fast food. McDonald’s could no longer hide behind golden arches and a smiling clown. The place that promised happiness, fun, and laughter had a dark side. Sound familiar? Just like the Happy Meal makes you feel more gross than happy, the apps on your phone that promise connection, joy, and amusement always seem to come up short.
But let’s not forget, McDonald’s offers salads too.
With something ‘healthy’ on their menu, they can claim, Look! We’re giving people healthy options. It’s up to them now! In a similar fashion, Facebook and Instagram have added ‘restrictive settings’ basically to say, Look! People are aware of how much time they spend with us. It’s up to them if they want to stay!
The Real Social Dilemma
This is all starting to sound pretty negative so let me backtrack a bit and say, I don’t believe any of these companies are evil. They’re full of people who want to do good but unfortunately, shareholders have a way of diluting good intentions. That being said, let’s not forget all the benefits these corporations provide for society.
McDonald’s provides jobs to thousands of people who may not have better opportunities in their hometowns. Burger King offers a familiar warm meal when you’re on a road trip, miles away from home. Facebook allows my mom to talk to her family halfway around the world every week without having to pay for exorbitant long-distance phone calls. Twitter allows everyday people like you and me to connect with seemingly untouchable celebrities.
These platforms are not the devil. They serve a purpose, and they have great potential to do good. Where we can go wrong is when we place responsibility on them moderate our consumption of their platforms. That’s like waiting for Wendy’s to stop advertising so you can eat healthier. It makes no sense. They have stakeholders to answer to. McDonald’s can serve salads and Instagram can add time controls, but ultimately it’s up to us to manage how we consume their products.
With time, most people learn that while fast food provides a short-term high, it’s not long-term beneficial to eat in excess. Therefore, they stop eating so many fries. They still reap the benefits of fast food every once in a while on a road trip or in a different city, but they don’t allow fast food to control their lives.
We can take a similar attitude toward social media. Over time, we have come to realize that this once shiny, exciting, new technology has some drawbacks when consumed in excess. That doesn’t mean we have to start yelling at the companies who made them to change their entire business model. The wonderful thing about capitalism is that the consumer holds the power. If you find that a product you once used is no longer serving you, stop using it. If enough people stop using it, a smart company will be forced to adapt or die.
The real social dilemma isn’t that an app can control your mind. It’s the fact that you believe that’s true. Despite what all the flashy headlines tell you, it is possible to get off social media. I’ve done it even as a teenager who grew up with a screen in my hand. If I can do it, so can you.
What these companies fear most isn’t that you figure out their ‘tactics.’ What keeps Silicone Valley’s brightest minds tossing and turning is the fear that you’ll realize your power as an individual. Don’t let the anyone stifle your hope that mindful social media usage is possible. I’m living proof that it is. As President Snow from The Hunger Games reminds us, “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear.”