By Jamie Goodwin
Networking apps are making billions of dollars on the back of social media addictions that Gulf experts fear are ruining a generation
It is hard to ignore the familiar ‘ping’ emitted from your mobile phone – the notification that someone may be talking about you on social media. How long can you leave it before you slide your thumb across the screen to open the app?
The urge to respond is a more complex, emotional reaction than you may think – and one that online businesses are increasingly exploiting.
How long do you really spend on Facebook every day? Are you doing your best to consume the 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute? Do you spend most evenings monitoring friends or famous people on Snapchat?
Social media has made a mainstream money-spinner out of addiction.
Of the 3 billion people globally with access to the internet, 2.1 billion have social media accounts, 1.7 billion of which are active at least once a month. The social networking giant that is Facebook still dominates the landscape with 1.55 billion users, with 900 million of them also on its Messenger app.
In 2015, the advertising revenue of social networks worldwide amounted to $25.14bn – and that is projected to grow to $41bn by 2017, according to data from statista.com. Facebook made more than $17bn alone in 2015 – more than the combined revenue of eBay and Yahoo, two of the world’s leading internet companies.
It literally pays to entice users to check in on such platforms – be it the industry giants or the new kids on the block – as many times as possible every day, or even every hour. That is by design. Most of us know that urge we feel when the little red notification pops up on our home screen. It is an emotional itch that we are compelled to scratch.
This compulsive behavior can be as powerful as any substance addiction, psychology experts say. Its roots are in the release of chemicals within the brain, says Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and managing director of The Lighthouse Arabia, a mental health and wellness clinic in Dubai.
“A social media addiction operates neurologically, like any other addiction,” she says. “As other addictions, engaging in social media will release a neurochemical called dopamine. Dopamine is created in the brain and is critical for all sorts of brain functions such as sleeping, mood, attention, seeking and reward. Dopamine is also referred to as the ‘pleasure chemical’ and the one that is associated with addictions. Most interestingly, dopamine is involved in ‘seeking’ behavior.
“So when a person engaged in social media and they start to look at or post pictures and they get a dopamine reward, they continue to stay on the site and seek, which releases more dopamine, creating a dopamine loop – and an addiction. An addiction cycle is similar to what a person will experience when engaging with social media to an unhealthy degree.
“When a person feels the urge to check their social media or post something on their social media, the tension inside of them builds. They might try to ignore that urge, but most likely they will check their site or make the post. Then when they engage in that behaviour or action the brain releases dopamine, which makes the person feel good. But after hours of being on social media and not completing a work project or forgoing exercise, the guilt kicks in and the person will decide not to look at social media again, until the cycle begins again – trigger, urge, engaging, guilt.”
This social cycle is only set to grow as today’s young people become tomorrow’s parents, teachers and business leaders.
A recent survey by the Abu Dhabi Education Authority (ADEC) found that more than one in four people aged between 10 and 20 spend more than five consecutive hours on social media every day – well above the two consecutive hours that experts consider to constitute “addiction”.
ADEC surveyed 31,109 public and private school students aged 10 to 20. Most of the students - 58 percent - said time spent on social media prevented them from spending time with family members and 56.4 percent said it interfered with homework. Almost 30 percent said they had been cyber-bullied through social media.
Yet despite these clear negative effects, students kept coming back. This could be down to a psychological “fear of missing out”, according to Dr Masood Badri, head of research at ADEC.
“What causes social media addiction has more to do with the psychological needs of people,” Dr Badri says. “By nature, humans are social animals. People require social affirmation from peers … to gain approval or acknowledgment from peers. Research shows that when individuals’ psychological needs were deprived, a fear of missing out provided the temptation of visiting social media sites and/or writing and checking text messages and e-mails.
In addition, people who suffer from depression or who are overly shy and cannot easily relate to their peers are at a higher risk of developing an internet addiction in general and social media addiction in particular.”
He says behavioural signs of social media overuse include spending more than one hour daily on social media sites, checking social media sites whenever and wherever possible, seeking new “friends” in a competitive way, and staying up later than usual to use social media.
“The point is, young people are in their critical stage of forming and developing personal and professional identities,” he says. “When young people spend too much time on social media, it will unavoidably interfere with other aspects of daily life. Young people require more quality time with family and friends, productive time for studying and doing sports. And they are more likely to become the prey of cyber-bullying and violence.
“Parents and teachers should not leave youth’s online activities unguided. The Abu Dhabi Youth Use of Social Media Survey explored several ways for parents and teachers to work with students. These include talking to your child about what he or she does on social networking sites, monitoring your child’s activities or comments on social networking sites and setting up rules or suggesting ways to behave towards other people on social networking sites.”
Studies have linked the overuse of Facebook to mental health disorders, including depression. Worryingly, young people have a higher chance of falling victim to social media addiction, due to a higher sensitivity to the “dopamine reward system”.
And the impact of this altered social behaviour could be huge in the near future, as engagement patters change with each passing generation, according to Dr Afridi.
“I think it may be more worrying to have younger people addicted to social media,” she says. “The dopamine reward system is very activated during adolescence. So while the adolescent has a lower baseline dopamine, their hit from engaging in a pleasurable activity is going to be a lot higher, resulting in a higher likelihood of addiction.
“Children these days are learning that you can make a friend, delete a friend or dump a partner – all with one click. They are not learning that relationships take blood, sweat and tears. They are not learning that relationships are hard work and real friends are very few, but very important. They create an identity that will get more likes and add more followers, but it may or may not be who they authentically are.
“Children these days are showing more and more sign of social skills difficulties and autistic-like behaviours. They cannot read social cues, have difficulty maintaining eye contact and cannot hold conversations because they have grown up with emoticons and looking at screens rather than at their parents.”
Ironically, the very form of communication that mobile phones were designed for – talking - is increasingly becoming out-of-date. Traditional telephone conversations are being ditched in favour of text messaging through social platforms.
It could lead to us “losing our humanity”, says Dr Afridi.
“Social media has negatively affected relationships and become a substitute for human connection for most people,” she says. “People are relying too much on social media to develop friendships, or maintain relationships. A client of mine told me that someone called her to invite her to a party and she felt confused and slightly agitated that the woman could have sent a voice note, Whatsapp message or Facebook message. A phone call seems too invasive these days.
“Clients ask me all the time if they can just Skype [video call] their therapy sessions as it would be more convenient and I am adamant that I will not do therapy over Skype. The reason for this is that I happen to be from the school of thought that believes that human connection and energy exchange cannot be relayed through a screen and half the healing is in that.
“We are very connected but not very emotionally connected. That lack of emotional and social connection is resulting in many people feeling lonely, depressed, stressed and anxious. It is no surprise that depression will be the leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020. Whether it is birthday wishes, or grief condolences, people are communicating through social media, which I think is not what social media was created for. It was not created to replace human connection, human touch, a hug, a smile, the holding of hands or joyful embrace.
“I would like to say that social media is actually a wonderful tool to stay connected; it is the way people are using social media that has become harmful.”
At its best, social media has been an incredible influencer for positive change in the Middle East.
Young people in the Arab world are among the most prolific users of social media, according to the 2015 Arab Social Media Report. Saudi Arabia had the world’s highest penetration of Twitter users in 2014, according to a report in The Economist, in part due to the youthfulness of the kingdom’s population and its limited access to other forms of media.
It is part of a growing social media revolution in the region, according to content creators who say that online networks can provide a voice for those who might otherwise struggle to be heard.
Haifa Beseisso, a Palestinian who was born and raised in the UAE, is a YouTube creator and self-proclaimed “dream-chaser”. Her channel, Fly With Haifa, focuses on travel, culture exchanges and achieving dreams. Her experience epitomises the positive uses of social media.
“While to some people social media would be a fun platform of sharing pictures and updates, to others it is a platform for sharing their talents with the world, and eventually making a career out of it,” Beseisso says.
“A lot of youth in the Arab world and the GCC are heading towards social media, in my opinion, because it makes it easy for them to expose their art, and what they are good at. It is a platform that doesn’t ask you for your nationality, or for what is referred to as ‘wasta’, meaning knowing someone on the inside of the company who can get you to places. The online platform is fair – it invites you to showcase your potential and it is up to you and your talent to where you reach.
“Social media has definitely taken up a big part of people’s lives. Going out has to be followed with a picture. It has become the first thing that people look at in the morning, as it is not only a source of social update, but also where a lot of people go for news. Some young people do not like watching the news for the negative and serious aspect it has and would rather to know [it] via social media.
“For professional social media, creating content is of high importance – to the point that if you do not upload a picture daily, it feels like you are skipping a day of work.
“YouTube is lovely. If you have a talent, you can just go ahead, regardless of your race, religion, looks or networks. It is you, the screen and the viewers. This gives a lot of people a voice, a strong voice, men and women. For women who tend to be judged or have to wait for a manager to allow her to have a voice, with YouTube this is no longer the case. This lady can just go ahead and reach the sky.”
Those concerned about the age of social media addiction can only hope that more users apply the same value to being online as does Beseisso.