Social Polarization

What began as a business model to gain engagement, growth, and advertisement through the dawn of social media has evolved into something with a life of its own. A combination of factors has threaded together over time to create a set of circumstances the designers of these systems didn’t even project.

As you may know, social media giants compete for your attention, trading in human futures. We may not realize that every post, picture, tweet, share, pin and so forth is monitored. What we view, how long we view an item, and what we respond to or initiate becomes useable data that predicts our future behavior.

On the other hand, the human in us has always responded predictably to an intermittent system of reinforcement specifically known as variable ratio. It’s the same method of keeping us glued to a slot machine and is the most powerful way to do so. We don’t know when the reward will come so we keep playing, seeking that payoff.

If that weren’t enough, something physiological is going on that involves our human vulnerability. We receive a shot of dopamine (our feel good chemical) in our brains when we get that notification of someone’s comment on our post or a like.

According to Dr. Anna Lembke, Psychologist at Stanford, this process is the same cycle of physiological responses that occur when someone experiments with a drug. After several “hits” we can become just as habituated as any other addict to social media.

So where does the idea of polarization come in? That is the most alarming part of this mysterious phenomena. Social media goals or business models are powered by algorisms that store up all that search and response data, predicting what will keep you scrolling, viewing, and basically on-line. In that process, we are fed a steadily increasing diet of similar content that may or may not be true. This information serves to entrench us further and deeper in our own beliefs. Our choices compound our future options in favor of whatever will keep us feasting on their product. We end up with no exposure to the other ideas or opinions around us and begin to think everyone believes just like us. To make this even more confusing, fake news is hard to distinguish from truth and exists on every issue and political stand. Conspiracy theories and outright crazy ideas prey on the trusting and vulnerable.

The Social Dilemma, a Netflix documentary reports that fake news travels 6 times faster on Twitter than real news. Shocking propaganda and outrageous reports demand so much more of our attention than just the facts. Regulations and restrictions are not there to guard our safety and that of our children as we may have imagined. Other countries are experiencing the same extreme polarization of viewpoints and have found their democratic structures eroding.

So, what do we do if we want to enjoy the benefits of social media and live a well-balanced life of authenticity and truth? First of all, reduce or eliminate all the notifications that keep you interrupted from real life. Second, place realistic boundaries on the use of technology and social media for yourself and your children. At my house, we have rules about not bringing a cellphone to the dinner table and leaving it to charge (outside the bedroom) at night. Even perfectly trustworthy teens will be interrupted by a cellphone throughout the night and some get little to no sleep with a device nearby. That results in a whole host of problems with attention and learning capacity during the day.

Also, purposely seek out information from trustworthy sources and expose yourself to a variety of views simply to educate yourself and develop the empathy needed to rub elbows on this planet with “those people”.

Finally, spend time engaging and growing through meaningful activities such as hobbies, exercise, chores, and face to face contact with friends and family (after the rules of the pandemic are behind us). People still achieve the most satisfying interactions in real time sharing common interests and discovering the views of others the old fashioned way.

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