Psychological take on social media algorithms

The boost of endorphins and dopamine, which the social media content is programmed to release, further solidifies the impact of the insatiable id in our day-to-day decision making.
(Express IIlustrations)
(Express IIlustrations)

One of the most influential contributors to the study of psychology, Dr. Sigmund Freud, theorised about the “unconscious dynamics” of the brain and the further psychoanalytical divisions of the mind. He compartmentalised the mind to have three parts – the id, the ego, and the superego. Among these, the most prominent is the “id”, which characterises the animalistic and instinctual part of us. It refers to the basic human impulses to derive pleasure without the external realisation of morals, norms, values etc. The development of the id since a very young age perhaps explains its overpowering nature among the other parts of the brain and how societal morals and values suddenly lose meaning in our pursuit to seek and fulfil desires.

The main governing algorithm of all social media algorithms revolves around capitalising on the overpowering nature of our id. The boost of endorphins and dopamine, which the social media content is programmed to release, further solidifies the impact of the insatiable id in our day-to-day decision making, almost nullifying the roles played by the parts of the brain that are responsible in articulating between suppressing and fulfilling our natural desires that we crave out of the id (the ego) and that coordinate between the right and the wrong based on societal morals and values (the superego). The more the programmed dopamines are released in the user’s brain, the more pleasurable and positive the experience of mindlessly scrolling through a social media application becomes. Now the question arises is this a safe place to be mentally?

In order to find answers, we can look at what another prominent psychologist Dr. B.F. Skinner talked about – the process of psychological conditioning. Skinner, along with psychologist Dr. Edward Thorndike, argued through various experiments that “once an action brings a reward, the action gets stamped in the mind”. In other words, the consequence of an action controls the subsequent actions. The process, termed operant conditioning, is a common practice used in clinical psychology (which speaks of its efficiency), but can also be noticed in use somewhere else – devising social media algorithms. In the context of social media usage, consuming content (the action) leads to a regulated release of dopamine (the consequence), which further leads to the person consuming more social media content, and the cycle continues. Such a controlling process, operant conditioning rewires the general understanding of the emotions and associates it with the preceding actions – forming the basis of existence of addictions and of methods that relieve one from addictions. Hence, the algorithms are trained in such a way that they manipulate the emotions of its users (giving a perception that using the app leads to inferred happiness) leaving them hooked onto their screens for the worse. In short, the algorithms are trained to get you addicted.

Impacts of having powerful algorithms

In the midst of increasing mental health issues among youth, one may argue that social media provides a safe haven for all users to feel better given the eventually instilled positive feelings, and it acts as a refuge from the harsh realities of life, but, what is lost in the argument is the fact that today’s mainstream social media is dominated by potentially harmful and unhealthy content that is exhausting and straining when consumed constantly. The addictive nature of the experience further strengthens its grip on the id leading to sudden and regular impulses to check the social media feed and to engage with what the app has to offer. The app, too, regularly responds with dopamine release, triggering the brain’s reward mechanism and reinforcing the idea of the app being associated with positive feelings.

To add on to the highly manipulative and addictive nature of these algorithms, they trap users into carefully integrated marketing strategies that focus on apparent “perfection” as standards for living – undervaluing the lives of the majority of the population. It leads to unhealthy comparisons that usually only affect the user negatively, which they often fail to understand due to the constant gush of dopamine they’re experiencing. This disguised sense of self-inferiority leads to most of the mental health problems that the youth face today, including depression, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, eating disorders etc. Furthermore, it worsens the mental condition of users with existing mental health issues as they seek out continuously for more content resulting in them “escaping” into the world of social media as an attempt to avoid unpleasant realities. Though this sort of escapism has a positive role in helping in coping with post-traumatic stress and anxiety, it is not the best solution in the longer run, especially something that revolves around consuming content that is not necessarily safe, while also being a very vulnerable bait for all sorts of cybercriminals. This is the backbone of social media flourishing – involvement of powerful behavioural methods, abundance of unsafe and unhealthy exploitation mechanisms, and lack of stringent safety measures that prevent it.

The Metaverse

What is even more disturbing is further developments on the backbone, which includes Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the Metaverse, a virtual (and augmented) reality software that shall encompass elements from daily lives with an ability to supposedly replace actual social interactions.The idea is simple: the Metaverse offers people already suffering from mental disorders an entirely different dimension of imagining reality. It can be imagined as a digital abode where pain, disease, fear etc all lose meaning and only the positive endorphins, needed for mental wellbeing and inferred happiness that sustain a person, exist. In his pursuit to change the face of social interactions and “immersive technology” (as if existing social media platforms and 3D movies were not enough), has Zuckerberg, through his idea of the Metaverse, considered its impacts on people suffering from mental illnesses and/or psychological disorders? If existing social media applications can be called a menace, it will not be too far off to call the idea of “a Metaverse” disastrous to the mental well-being of humanity.

 Praveen Senthil is an Economics student at Ashoka University.

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