Is social media ruining our lives? Or is it simply an extension of human interaction into a new communication medium?

The answers aren’t so cut and dry, so let’s look at some of the data and try and figure out what is going on, and if social media is impacting your life more negatively than positively.

Way back in ancient times, in 2005, social media use was still a blip in how most people spent their time. Only 5 percent of adults in the United States reported using a social media platform in 2005.

According to recent studies, nearly 69 percent of adults and 81 percent ofteens in the US use social media. Across the world, out of 4.5 billion internet users overall, 57 percent of the population usessocial media.

That is a massive change in how people spend their free time and how they interact with others, both personally and professionally.

So, everyone is on it, not just kids anymore. How is this affecting our health and wellbeing? And what are people’s perceptions regarding social media, and how do they align to real-world data?

How Do Social Media Algorithms Work?

Social media is ingrained into almost every part of most people’s lives today. But most people do not know how these applications are programmed and how they work to keep you engaged and coming back for more, sometimes at the expense ofyour happiness and wellbeing.

Social media algorithms are in constant flux, and most companies do not make their source code publicly available, so it’s all a bit of a black box to marketers and others who want to program campaigns against the algorithms.

An AI algorithm is basically a mathematical set of rules that defines how a collection of data behaves. Many social media algorithms relate to sorting content in a user’s feed. They filter out unrelated content and show more relevantmaterial.

Related Article: The Internet Was Once Flat. No Longer

How Do Social Media Algorithms Manipulate You?

On the surface, these algorithms sound useful. They help you find people you’ve lost connection with, or meet new friends, show you contextually relevant content and relevant offers and messaging. But is this all the algorithms arebeing programmed for? How else do they manipulate and change your behavior? And what are the medical consequences of this relentless focus on engagement?

All businesses have a business model they operate by. The primary metric in social media that companies are trying to improve to increase revenue is engagement. Engagement consists of behaviors like liking, commenting and sharing.

Engagement is the holy grail of key performance indicators (KPIs) that drives almost all decision-making at companies like Facebook. Everything social media companies program into their applications and algorithms is geared towardsincreasing engagement. Engagement to these companies means profit, revenue and success.

The problem is, these algorithms that are intended to increase engagement and revenue for social media companies are having negative effects on society.

For example, an internal Facebook report found their algorithms enabled disinformation campaigns based in Eastern Europe to reach almost 140 million US users during the 2020 Presidential Election, said an MIT Technology Review report. Keep in mind,75 percent of the people who saw these disinformation pages never followed any of them — Facebook's algorithm recommended them.

One problem with engagement driving algorithms and not search queries is that platforms driven this way suffer from popularity bias, according to Big Think. It is this popularity bias that can lead to harmfulconsequences. Big think found that popularity bias was more likely to lower the overall quality of content.

The Medical Consequences

The data on the medical impact of social media on teens and young adults should be concerning to all.

A 2018 Lancet study found that social media use led to decreased,disrupted and delayed sleep. A lack of sleep is associated with depression, memory loss and poor academic performance.

The study found that in addition to impacting an individual’s ability to get a restful night's sleep, social media use can affect people’s physical health even more directly. Anxiety and depression resulting from sleep deprivation cancause symptoms like nausea, headaches, muscle tension and tremors.

Learning Opportunities

The Lancet study also found that the earlier teens start using social media, the greater impact the platforms can have on their mental health. Just being on social media increases the chance of bullying and harmful interactions by bothmales and females.

Related Article: How Important Is a Brand's Social Media Presence for Customer Experience? 

The Public Perception of Social Media

If you thought that it’s only the doctors and scientists raising the alarm about potential health consequences of social media use, you would be wrong. The public itself is painting a less than rosy picture of how social media isaffecting the fabric of society.

According to a survey by Pew Research, 64 percent of Americans say social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the US today.

In addition, only 10 percent of Americans say social media sites have a mostly positive effect on the way things are going.

There is also a large divide in who trusts social media based on political affiliation. About 50% percent of Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party say social media has a negative effect on the way things aregoing in the country today. Compare this to 78 percent of Republicans who responded the same.

When asked to elaborate on the main reason they think social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in this country, 28 percent of respondents mentioned the spreading of misinformation and made-up news.

Frankly, people are getting worn out by their inability to trust and deal with political posts and discussions.

Fifty-five percent of US social media users say they are “worn out” by political posts and discussions, while 70 percent now say they find it “stressful and frustrating” to talk about politics on social media with people they disagreewith, up from 59 percent in 2016, according to Pew.

What’s Next?

Social media is programmed to be reinforcing in nature. When you use a social media platform, its algorithms activate the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter chemical linked to pleasurable activities likesex, eating and socializing. Social media platforms are designed to be addictive and have all the negative consequences of any addictive behavior.

What can we do about this? It’s really about social media companies not making engagement the end all and be all of their business strategies.

Engagement bias is driving much of the popularity of low-quality and negative content. It needs to change, and the change needs to come from social media tech companies.