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Social Media Companies Profit From Your Addiction

Social Media Companies Profit From Your Addiction

Social Media Companies Profit From Your Addiction


Staff Writer

January 18, 2024

Shaye Lee '26

In the wake of the most recent All-School speaker’s warnings about social media, I felt morally obliged to help The Record jump aboard this anti-technology train. To start, let me make my opinion clear: social media is a superficial platform for social validation and that we should all stop funneling money into Mark Zuckerberg’s already-too-deep pockets.

 But we all know this. Anyone who has been on the internet—or taken a Human Development course, for that matter—knows that social media is bad for you. Excessive use has been linked to depression, anxiety, decreasing attention spans, insomnia, cyberbullying, and virtually any other form of mental/physical degradation you can think of. 

But like addicts hooked on a lethal drug, we continue to waste a significant portion of our day plugged into these platforms. This piece is less “me-expressing- my-opinion” and more “me-trying-to-persuade-you” to act upon what you already know. 

The primary business model for these companies is contingent upon creating addiction. It’s simple: the more time you spend on your phone, the more money they make. By compromising your own well-being, you’re ensuring that social media tycoons maintain billions of dollars in profit. These companies are intentionally preying on your psychological vulnerabilities to maximize both your addiction and their revenues. 

One of the first weaknesses they exploit is our craving for validation by others. Psychologist Mark Leary theorized that we wouldn’t willingly subject ourselves to the mental distress that accompanies a negative perception of ourselves unless there are benefits that somehow compensated for it. He thus proposed the existence of “a sociometer”: an unconscious measurement of “the degree to which people perceive they are relationally valued and socially accepted by other people.” 

Social media platforms force us to relinquish control over our sociometers to the social media companies, to like, comment, and tweet counters. Our self-esteem, then, is inevitably tied to arbitrary functions in these apps. Even though we often leave platforms with a lower sociometric reading, when we post or receive positive user feedback, our self-esteem goes up. We crave social validation so much that even its mere possibility can keep us endlessly scrolling, seeking our next fix. 

Companies use the power of the sociometer as the basis for their addictive technology. Platforms use the variable rewards schedule used by slot machines to addict users. For instance, the “pull to refresh” function on Instagram represents the online equivalent of pulling a lever to see what you win. Every single feature is specifically designed to make your experience resemble a game in which there are unpredictably delivered payouts. A tweet each time you get a new notification. A red heart every time you like a post. A small buzz every time someone tags or mentions you in a comment. 

The cumulative effect of these unpredictable dopamine hits creates an addiction in which your mind conflates the thrill of “winning” (aka feeling socially validated) with the meaningless appearance of red hearts or banner notifications. The very existence of social media rewires your brain into producing small amounts of dopamine that shapes your behaviors and emotional responses. 

The invisibility of social media’s intervention makes addiction all the more dangerous. Although it’s easy to view “counters” (i.e. measurements of likes or comments) as objective portrayals of your social relevance, bear in mind that social media algorithms act as hidden mediators. It’s up to the platform to decide whether your post is put on the top of your friends’ feeds, whose story appears first in your lineup, and even the order in which your comments are displayed in that “view more comments” section. The difference between an upload going viral or disappearing is a matter of luck. 

The narrative surrounding social media too often neglects the most important reasons it is toxic. Sure, social media promotes false ideals of beauty and preys on the insecurities of young teens. But all of these features exist for one purpose: addiction. Every single second you spend on one of these platforms is another surrender to Silicon Valley capitalists. 

The system knowingly exploits our psychology and turns us into nothing more than mindless trolls: scrolling, liking, posting, feeling validated. Scrolling, liking, posting, feeling depressed. Recognizing the intentions behind its design is the first step to dismantling the iron fist of its influence.

We live in a society designed to uplift the privileged and silence the marginalized. Case in point: students from private preparatory schools are often the most equipped with the resources, networks, and funds required to advance their opinions in the real world, even if they’re not necessarily the most capable. This advantage trickles down into social justice movements, producing a landscape where academics assume disproportionally outsized roles in socio-political discourse. While it’s admittedly optimistic to ask us to completely resolve systemic injustices, I think it’s reasonable to ask those who do benefit from our current system—that is, boarding school youth—to use their privilege to make change. This invites the question: what should activism at boarding schools look like? 

The first step to constructive change is nurturing diversity of thought. We are lucky enough to attend a school that champions inclusion, and our identity-based diversity initiatives provide varied opinions in our classrooms that encourage learners to think critically about their own worldviews. But the promotion of one-sided viewpoints within institutions that lack this representation often reifies existing power hierarchies and hampers the possibility for reform. 

Students should aim to amass knowledge on politically relevant events before constructing opinions, not the other way around. Overcoming one’s biases requires actively engaging with wider communities that offer perspectives that challenge our assumptions. 

Slacktivism is not the answer. By this, I mean the halfhearted social media reposting, online petition signing, and GoFundMe-donating— basically every form of low-level, low-commitment, and low-effort action. Activism conducted exclusively on third-party social media platforms reeks of performativity. Instead, students should take the time to discover what actually generates positive engagement. 

There’s not a formulaic shortcut to genuine activism, but the very word gives us a hint: it should be active. To be actively fighting for a cause, there must be an element of struggle and discomfort, which is not present when one simply presses a button on a screen. One immediately thinks of live protests, however, simply sparking a hard conversation can fill the gaps where advocacy is lacking, and will promote the productive community conversations we need to be having. 

Finally, although the responsibility to promote genuine activism ultimately rests in the hands of the activists themselves, in boarding schools, administrators and educators have just as strong a duty to shape nuanced dialogues. 

Encouraging faculty to practice critical pedagogy (an educational approach that asks students to connect their own experiences to larger systems of power and equity) would help learners more effectively engage in activism by encouraging them to challenge their assumptions and examine their privileges and attitudes. In an environment like boarding school, where educators assume a parental role, it is crucial to engage in a form of teaching that fosters impactful activism and a genuine sense of social responsibility.

At Hotchkiss, critical pedagogy often manifests itself in the Harkness-style conversations of the Humanities department. Teachers use students’ own experiences as a catalyst for understanding the ways in which class material interacts with broader social issues. Championing either the expansion of critical pedagogical practices or else the restructuring of classroom norms to prioritize them would encourage a shift away from passive learning and towards a style of thoughtful questioning designed to raise students’ consciousness. 

Boarding school communities have the responsibility to shape student discourse on campus and prepare students to be leaders. In a world where privilege grants influence, educators and learners must collaboratively create effective engagement and change. Students should choose to participate in dialogues that challenge norms, broaden viewpoints, and produce effective activism within and outside the classroom.

Shaye Lee is a staff writer for The Record.

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Editor's Note: This article was recovered from The Record's online archive. There may be stylistic and visual errors that interrupt the reading experience, as well as missing photos. To read this article as it appeared in print, view our print archives.

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Editorials are written by members of The Record's Executive Board. They typically center on issues related to the school or student life on campus.

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