Social Media is a Drug

Maybe it is true that human beings have developed symbolic thinking as early as the Middle Stone Age, as Henshilwood believes and it has been deeply rooted in our minds to this current day. We are surrounded by artefacts and as Cole suggests, we cannot view artefacts just as objects. He said, “Artefacts are simultaneously ideal and material. They coordinate human beings with the world and one another in a way that combines the properties and tools.” I am very interested in examining the cognitive artefacts in our everyday life and in this week’s essay, let’s look at social media.

Social media is ubiquitous and it is especially true for young people. Everyone I know uses at least two social media. Social media is a drug because we have a basic biological imperative to connect with other people, which directly affects the dopamine release in the reward pathway. Millions of years of evolution are behind that system to get us to come together and live in communities and to share things and socialize. So there is no doubt that social media that optimizes this connection between people is very addictive. I will admit that I am pretty addicted to social media, especially Instagram and Weibo. Every day I spend an average of 1 hour, 51 minutes on Weibo and 1 hour, 28 minutes on Instagram. It has definitely gotten much worse due to COVID. With the lockdown and social distancing, social media seems to be the only way for lots of people to connect. Yet, one major reason why I want to discuss social media is because it is going out of control.

The media technologies as cognitive technologies has become so advanced that sometimes I think social media apps know myself much better than I do. There is a classic saying that goes something like, “If you are not paying for the product, then you are the product.” Lots of people may just think, “Oh Instagram or Facebook is just a place for me to like pictures and connect with my friends.” Yet, the very goal of apps like these is to keep people engaged on the screen and to get people’s attention as much as they can. Have you ever noticed that sometimes you just search something on google and then you open up your Facebook page, and that exact thing you just searched is now appearing on your Facebook ad? That is by absolute no coincidence. The reason why companies like Facebook and Google is this mega-successful is because of the fact that they make great predictions. But how do they do that? Data. A ton of data. Everything we do on the internet and social media is being watched and measured: what kind of image does one look at and how long does one look at it. Think about our social media feed. Every time you refresh the page, something new pops up and it almost always is something that you may be interested in. This kind of cognitive technology is gradually modifying our behaviors, hacking into our psychology and exploiting the vulnerability in human psychology so that it can provide growth, engagement and user sign-ups for companies like Facebook or Twitter.

Think about your pencil. You wouldn’t not think of it as a tool because no one has ever blamed a pencil for meddling with political elections. But social media isn’t just a tool; it’s a carefully designed artefact that aims to use your own psychology against you. This is very bad and scary. What’s worse, the more I think about the ever-advanced cognitive technology behind social media, the more I worry about one day, scenes from Black Mirror or West World might become an reality. Yet, I have no willpower to get rid of social media for good because I am already addicted.



Kate Wong, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292, no. 6 (June 2005): 86-95.

Michael Cole, On Cognitive Artifacts, From Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Connected excerpts.