"Always on" makes us mentally ill, design ethics are the answer

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Humans have evolved to seek and operate within frameworks that have a beginning, middle and end. Our brain structure is built in a way that ensures we are “task oriented”, to the point where we have a “dopamine release” when we complete tasks.

However, Social Media is built on keeping us always on, always scrolling, always going to the next level. Continuous updates, messages, imagery or new levels of a game, its doesnt stop, it means we are in a continuous state of attentiveness / vigilance, often with continuous cortisol releases, and this can make us mentally very unwell.

The long term damage associated with this is only starting to be understood, attention deficit issues, depression, sleep deprivation, the WHO has recently named “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition - and on it goes.

Social Media adds in the double whammy, by appealing to the strongest need within us - the need to belong - and playing on this to keep us hooked and coming back. Infact, I believe that the need to belong is even stronger than the need to survive. This is up for debate but to me it’s obvious. If your interested in this idea then please read The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom in which he argues that social groups, not individuals, are the primary "unit of selection" and human psychological development. What does this mean? Simply put, Evolution forces us into groups by this chemically driven need to belong, the group we belong to competes against other groups for resources and the strongest group wins, enabling evolution to continue upward..

This, it is posited, explains why suicide exists, if you look at it through the lens of the above then it makes sense, particularly when suicide is linked to feelings of being separated from your peer group, family, work etc. Feeling as if you are not providing “value” or are “useless” to society are common amongst those who have suffered this terrible affliction. It also helps explain why we behave very irrationally and against our “values” when the group we belong to instructs us to do things against what we believe. This is what happens when you get nice, normal people going along with Nazism, but the point is we are all, every single one of us humans, susceptible to this, it’s part of being human, its part of the drive to “belong”.

Fortunately, our society and technology has outgrown this system but out biology hasn’t. It worked when we were cave people with limited resources, it enabled us to dehumanise others that we take from and dominate and it helped us survive, but its now redundant and instead causes great pain and suffering - we need to wake up to this, understand it and try and move on from it.

And that’s where social media comes in, the ”likes” and “follows” all release that bit of dopamine again that occurs when we are validated and connected to the group - and creates the opposite when we don’t get the likes and the more we have the more we need.

Hence my comment before of “The double whammy” we have cortisol releasing, continuous scrolling with no end to it, AND the undermining of our self-esteem with the need to belong.

Now don’t get me wrong, Social Media and tech is my business, and I love it and am committed to what it. In fact I call what I do “4th wave marketing” #4thwavemarketing. This is marketing that looks through the lens of society being shaped by technology that fuses our physical, digital and virtual selves. But our tech has run faster than our biology and if we are going to avoid generations of mentally ill and utilise tech positively, then we must use “Design Ethics” to ensure that there are built-in inhibitors and messaging to help protect us from our neurotransmitters and evolved patterns of behaviour that do not work well with “always on”.

One little ray of sunshine is AI. AI can help, massively, it can monitor behaviour and remind, caution or ultimately stop us from continuing to engage when we are harming ourselves. This can be simply by measuring the amount of time spent on social / games etc, or it could be more connected and actually monitor our physical state and be triggered when we hit biological stress markers.

How would this work? Well the new Apple watch is going to be able monitor our heart rate and there have been rumblings that they are testing one that will monitor our blood glucose levels, so it’s not a stretch to see them able to measure other stress signals, feed them back to us and put a curb on our behaviour. The tech is not here yet but it is getting closer - see links below.

Another area that AI and Machine Learning can help is in the world of Virtual Influencers. In one of my consulting businesses, www.virtualinfluencer.agency we create Virtual influencers who have advanced bot like communication capabilities, meaning they can respond to their followers likes and comments and have a conversation with them. But part of this is includes creating a checking system where the VI understands the age of the follower, and basically tells them to “go to bed and turn your phone off”, if they are a student and it’s a school night. We can extend this to more complex monitoring when the biological monitoring tech is here.

This kind of thinking I consider to be essential in protecting our mental health and curbing the inevitable backlash against tech. It’s all part of “Ethical design”, written about by Tim Wu - author of “The attention Merchants” - a book about advertising that explains how platforms like Facebook and Google make money by aggregating large amounts of attention and selling it to the highest bidder. In a recent article in Fast Company, Wu says that Design should be used to help achieve our goals, not exploit their weaknesses.

“Our brains like to close things out,” Wu says. “I think that a lot of design now is trying to turn all of us into obsessive-compulsives by making it so the loops are never closed.” “How do you feel after going to see a really great movie, as opposed to channel surfing for three hours.. It’s a complete difference. One has a beginning, middle, and an end, versus you saw half of 10 shows and kind of got into something that didn’t develop all the way through.”

So for professionals working in the industry, I suggest we really take this into careful consideration, for the sake of our industry and the the sake of our loved ones mental health.

Dudley Nevill-Spencer