Study: Social-media junkies make riskier decisions

  • A new study on social media use found that people who spent excessive time on Facebook also made riskier decisions -- performing as poorly in a famous psychological test as people dependent on substances such as cocaine or heroin.

    A new study on social media use found that people who spent excessive time on Facebook also made riskier decisions -- performing as poorly in a famous psychological test as people dependent on substances such as cocaine or heroin. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, FILE)

 
 
Posted1/12/2019 6:00 AM

A new study on social media use out Jan. 10 found that people who spent excessive time on Facebook also made riskier decisions -- performing as poorly in a famous psychological test as people dependent on substances such as cocaine or heroin.

Researchers at Michigan State University and Monash University in Australia gave 71 people the Iowa Gambling Task, which psychologists say identifies the differences in decision-making among healthy people and substance abusers.

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When playing the computer simulation of a card game, people who reported they overindulged in Facebook made big gambles at a higher rate -- even when they saw that taking risks in the game always came with big punishments. They played the game the exact way drug addicts typically do, while people who reported less time on social media made better decisions.

This camp also reported feeling similar symptoms of dependence on social media similar to those who suffer from substance abuse -- including feeling overly emotionally connected to the platforms, or letting them disrupt focus on work or other daily tasks. "They're constantly thinking about these platforms when they're not using them," said the study's lead author, Dar Meshi. "They're losing sleep because they're on social media."

Tech addiction is an issue on Congress's radar -- and is quickly becoming a point of contention between tech companies and lawmakers who worry about the impact of pervasive platforms on citizens' health. Senate Democrats are preparing to introduce bills addressing technology addiction, including one that would allocate more public funding into research on the impacts of technology on children's psychology.

"The widespread practice of designing technology products to be habit-forming, or to otherwise undermine user consent or autonomy, is a major concern," Senator Mark R. Warner, D-Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an email. "I'm in the process of drafting legislation that would address this phenomenon."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Meshi said his findings underscore the need for more research into dependence on technology. Scientists still know very little about technology addiction. The National Institutes of Health launched a major study into how screen-time impacts children's brain development, as CBS News recently reported. But overall, researchers have largely focused on dependence on video games, and to date, research into social media dependence is just beginning.

Lawmakers and consumer advocates also want more data. Facebook and companies have built their platforms with habit-forming features aimed at giving users psychological rewards that keep them coming back for more. Their efforts have been effective -- and lucrative. Though Facebook rarely gives exact figures on time people spend on its site, in 2016 it said the average person spends about 50 minutes per day across Facebook, Messenger and Instagram.

Lawmakers are especially focused on the impact of these sites and heavy screen time on children's health. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said he is planning to reintroduce a version of the Children and Media Research Advance (CAMRA) Act this Congress, which would allocate millions in funding for NIH to research the impact of technology such as mobile devices and video games on children and adolescents.

"Parents and policymakers alike are in the dark on pressing questions regarding how the technology children use every day is affecting their brains and bodies," Markey told me in an email. "We need to get to the bottom of the cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional repercussions of young people's tech use and media consumption."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The bill gained sponsors on both sides of the aisle and in the House, but did not move forward in the last Congress. Markey's staffers tell me they're collecting co-sponsors to reintroduce the bill. Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., was a House co-sponsor of the legislation, but he did not run for re-election in 2018 because he is pursuing a 2020 presidential bid.

Legislators have been trying to exert more political pressure on tech addiction since around the time Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in his dorm room -- years before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. In 2005, former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., first introduced the CAMRA Act to study the impact of electronic devices on children. But these efforts were not successful.

A perfect storm is brewing in 2019 that could result in a different outcome. Policymakers are planning to get tough on technology addiction as Wall Street investors and even prominent Silicon Valley technologists are using their influence to bring technology addiction to the public's attention.

The companies have introduced some new product features intended to get ahead of the backlash, such as timers that tell people how much time they've spent on their phone each week. But that doesn't seem to be enough for lawmakers, who are still promising to get tougher.

Warner told me the technology companies have too often used behavioral psychology to the detriment of consumers.

"Rather than using technology to empower consumers, too often we've seen large technology companies -- particularly in the social media space -- utilize technology, along with tricks gleaned from behavioral psychology, to disempower users -- undermining their ability to make informed, deliberate choices in their use of tech products."

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