It has become commonplace for media outlets to talk about this dark side of technology using the language of addiction. In a Washington Post op-ed earlier this year, for instance, psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee called on mental health professionals to recognize the bleak reality of “tech addiction.” In his New York Times column, Kevin Roose wrote about his “phone problem,” and how it had broken his brain. Parents and teens often signal their unhappiness with the amount of time spent online by framing the issue as smartphone addiction.
Framing the issue solely as social media addiction, besides being unhelpful, might in fact hinder social change. Measures that give teens and parents more control over the time they spend on social media — including Apple’s Screen Time and Android’s Digital Wellbeing — work well to increase awareness of our behavior, but they do nothing to change expectations about the private beliefs and hidden preferences of other people. Because of this, strategies that target individual behavior will be largely ineffective when it comes to changing the social norm.
Social norms involve entire societies of complex interacting individuals, stuck in an equilibrium they privately oppose. Because of their great power to govern human actions, they should be at the center of how we think about positive social change, and social media overuse is no exception. Indeed, if the dissonance between social media norms and the private beliefs of post-millennials is as strong as I think, it could be just a matter of time until the status quo is challenged. If enough people realize that many others are just as unhappy with the norm, change will happen.
The article delves a bit deeper into social norms and how they influence society even when a majority of individuals would like to change them. "Group thought" is not always the best direction for society to take and I wish a topic like this was mandatory study at schools. As we saw from Nazi Germany it is important that we stay accountable for our individual actions and be aware of negative societal norms.
The author, Arunas L. Radzvilavicius, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. He currently works on theoretical models of human behaviour, evolution of social norms, and moral emotions.
Opinion | What many commentators describe as an addiction is actually a powerful social norm at work. The distinction matters.