What social media and slot machines have in common
One of the biggest things we can do for our mental health, productivity and quality of relationships is to spend less time on social media.
Deep down we all know this to be true. Yet all it takes is a millisecond of boredom or distraction and we find ourselves with our phones in hand, mindlessly scrolling and refreshing without any conscious objective or desired outcome.
Addiction to social media is no accident
Social media has been deliberately built to be addictive, lighting up the very same receptors in your brain as a Las Vegas slot machine or roulette wheel. That's because in the online world, revenue is measured in clicks and time spent. So the more you play the more they get paid.
In a 2018 interview, Tristan Harris (former design ethicist at Google) explained that some of social media's most successful strategies have been taken directly from the gambling industry.
Take the pull-to-refresh and infinite scrolling features on our news feeds as an example. Have you ever noticed how unnervingly similar these mechanisms are to a slot machine?
You pull a lever looking for something interesting or gratifying. You cannot know when you will be rewarded, and much like gambling you very rarely find anything of value. But that’s precisely what keeps you coming back for more. Try your luck often enough and you might occasionally hit the jackpot. Only this one is paid in a currency of likes and shares rather than bank notes.
This virtual jackpot hits the exact same dopamine receptors as if you had won a game of blackjack at the MGM Grand Casino.
It feels rewarding... thrilling even... and may even make you temporarily forget that the house always wins. The scariest part of all of this is that studies have shown that a gambling addiction physically alters the brain’s structure and makes people more susceptible to depression and anxiety.
How to connect and disconnect
In 2019 there are more people addicted to social media than have ever had a gambling problem. So given that these apps were built on the exact same mechanisms used in the world’s leading casinos… What do you think they are doing to the minds of the millions who use them every day?
Not only does social media disrupting your mental health, it can be harming your physical health too. Check out this article on the eight lies social media tells you about fitness.
Of course, social media has its place in modern day society. It allows us to connect with people from all around the world, open our mind to new perspectives, and even create social and political change. But if you want to have a healthy relationship with it you’ve got to start building some barriers.
Turning your notifications off is a good place to start. You’re fighting a losing battle when you’re peppered with alerts and messages all day. By doing so you’ll find yourself using social media more intentionally. Instead of logging on when you’re enticed by a new notification you can open the app only when you want to post or check on something in particular.
Notifications are only the first step, though. I also recommend setting a cut off time each day when you log out of all devices. And most importantly of all, take a break from it every once in a while. I personally avoid all forms of social media on Sundays and take a more extended break every few months.
When used correctly social media can be a powerful tool. But it is no more than that. You won’t find the secret to happiness at the other end of a Facebook post, just like the gambler won’t find his fortune at the casino.
A meaningful life is about face to face connection, adventure and community. A million likes and shares will never get close to a hug from someone you love or a road trip with your best friend.
The moment we realise this, we’ll see that swiping and scrolling isn’t so important after all.