by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
What happens on social media doesn’t stay there. After more than a decade of growth for platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, that much is undeniable. Social media has been sharply criticized for sucking attention away from the physical world and contributing to greater political polarization, but how it is changing our very selves — beyond compelling us to buy things, shortening our attention span, or causing our brains to offload the storage of literal memories to social media — receives far less attention. The so-called “crisis of character” acknowledged by pundits across the political spectrum overlaps greatly with the crisis of social media dependence. Social media use should be seen as a self-modification project, and one in which we become worse people.
In her new book, “The Weaponization of Loneliness,” Stella Morabito discusses how we use social media to feel connected, even though this connection isn’t the kind we actually need. It’s a “pseudo-intimacy” that “preys on our loneliness, leading us into the arms of social engineers who hope to mold our thoughts.”
These “various forms of pseudo-intimacy” achieved on social media, such as celebrity fandom and status-building, “are exploitable.” We’re the loneliest people perhaps in human history, and social media is leveraging that to keep us building mostly superficial connections in the virtual world.
What happens when we don’t have strong personal relationships in real life and become dependent on these shallow “substitute” connections forged on social media? “We lose our ability to self-regulate when we feel socially disconnected,” says Morabito, citing the work of authors John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick. A worse ability to emotionally self-regulate translates to worse behavior: Among the effects are greater impulsiveness, less empathy, and more anger.