The Setup for the Fall
1) We have more information than we have ever had. Nearly infinite choices.
2) We know from research that more choices ultimately make us less happy, and yet our pathetic levels of self-awareness won’t allow this data to register on a conscious level. We still hedonistically seek more choice. More variety.
3) We live in a world of unprecedented access to technology, which puts that variety at our fingertips in the form of various social media platforms.
4) We are social creatures that are intrinsically wired to highly value social information. We believe the more information we can get, the better we will feel. More choice. More possibility. Even when those choices are false choices (no, you really couldn’t have been at that party on the yacht with the Kardashians last weekend, even if your Instagram made it feel as if it were an option).
5) We have produced a generation that can never be satisfied because—see point one, we have more information than we have ever had.
Social media has been getting a lot of negative attention recently with headlines linking its use to high rates of depression among teenagers. High-ranking Silicon Valley executives have even begun speaking out about how teenagers may be targets of platform designs that are intentionally addictive. But ask the teens themselves about how they feel social media contributes to their lives and you’ll hear a completely different story.
A poll conducted by research group GfK surveyed 1141 American teenagers, ages 13-17 across gender, race and socioeconomic backgrounds. The results were strikingly opposed to the seemingly dire findings of other research correlating social media use with depression, suicide risk and low self-esteem.
Surprisingly, teens reported that they felt significantly less lonely, less depressed and felt better about themselves when they used social media. Why the discrepancy?
I think the key factor at play here is self-awareness.
We are all lousy at being self-aware. And to mediate the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, with the whole “kids just don’t know what makes them happy” routine, we know that this truism applies to adults as well.
Independent of age, we are all simply lousy at assessing and knowing what will make us happy or unhappy. That’s abundantly clear in the research on the paradox of choice. We think more choices will make us happier. But the reality, as economist Barry Schwartz points out, is that excessive choice is a recipe for regret and dissatisfaction.
“After millions of years of survival based on simple distinctions, it may simply be that we are biologically unprepared for the number of choices we face in the modern world.” Schwartz, 2004
In a previous piece, I discussed the real threat of decision fatigue—the idea that your brain has a finite power with which to make choices throughout the day. Given that our ancestral brains are built for minimal decision making, being forced to function in a world of nearly endless possibility is not only burdensome but can also lead to awful decision making.
Herein lies the recipe for disaster—social media appears to offer us nearly infinite choices.
Consider how all these pieces converge to create a perfectly unhappy existence.
We have a particularly self-unaware population using technology at unprecedented rates. In a four-year period from 2006 to 2010, adolescents increased their use of digital devices by 2 hours daily! When accounting for multiple device use, total daily average media exposure time was 11.5 hours/day. Technology isn’t a part of this generation’s world—it is their world.
We truly believe that more choices make us happier in spite of the research that clearly indicates otherwise. Despite the data, we still believe that more information is better. More choices. More options. More. More. More.
Our brains have an intrinsic susceptibility to feeding the insatiable choice monster. In fact, our dopamine systems are so cued by social information that one study found that when primates receive information, their dopamine systems react the same as if they found food. Our current environment is a cornucopia of information always at our fingertips giving us little hits of happy the more we click.
So as we are surrounded by the limitless world that technological devices bring to our fingertips, is it any wonder that this generation is feeling less happy? And given our predisposition to dismiss the notion that less choice is better, of course we are going to be constantly chasing those hedonistic, greener pastures promised by social media. Seeing the posts of others only furthers the belief that your own life might be inferior. Look at all the other possible things you could be doing/achieving/experiencing!
Here in the world of social media are all the choices and possibilities that we all think we crave. That we all believe will make us happy. While we consciously believe that we’ve opened a paradise of options, our brains settle into a state of overwhelm, under-appreciating all the options we had before that first click.
We’ve created a generation of anxiety-ridden FOMO maximizers. Those so afraid of missing out on one opportunity that they can never really be present to the satisfaction they might be deriving from their current reality. They are always seeking the next bit of information. The next opportunity. Perhaps this even explains why millennials have gotten such a bad rap for continuously seeking new employment options. We are never satisfied.
I can’t help but compare our addicted digital generation to the laboratory rats in self-administering cocaine studies. I’m certain if we were able to ask the rats how they felt about the drug, they’d nearly unanimously agree that it made them feel better. Meanwhile, their social and self-care behaviors were concurrently deteriorating to the tune of 90% mortality. And still we push the lever for more.
Perhaps it’s time to step back and reassess just how well we think we understand the difference between an uneasy, dissatisfied level of “happy” and truly maximum satisfaction in the non-digital social space in which we actually reside.