The Artificial Reward of Social Media!

What I learned from shutting down my Facebook and Instagram accounts

Recently, I decided to step away from Facebook and Instagram. It was not a quick or easy decision. I had always relied heavily on Facebook and Instagram to close the communications gap with people important to me but whom I could not see during my demanding daily schedule. Additionally, for those I did not reach out to directly, I found that periodically peeking at their pages provided me with enough information to feel connected.

I have always been a big supporter of social media. I have stayed connected with friends I have met from all over the world. I have enjoyed creating engaging content. Facebook and Instagram have been great platforms for interacting with large audiences. I have run effective social advocacy campaigns. In short, I owe a lot of my visibility to the power Facebook and Instagram.

However, not long ago, I started to realize that Facebook and Instagram were also having negative effects on me. Soon after, I decided to deactivate my accounts and erase the apps from my technology devices. That was two and half months ago.

I have always tried to be a self-aware person. But I am an amateur psychologist. I do not have any degree in psychology. I worked as a learning coach for a university three and half years. One of my roles was to look at different characteristics that impact motivation to action and then to include what I learned in the coaching model I developed with my colleagues. The goal was to help adults take ownership of their learning success by developing grit and metacognitive skills. I was very interested in some of the work in therapy and Co-Active Coaching. Self-awareness was a major focus of a lot of my research. That prompted me to seek ways to become more aware of what influenced my own behaviors.

I heard a quote once that more than 50 percent of what we do is done unconsciously. That scared me. I wondered how and why, as human beings blessed with free will, we could allow our brains to work half the time on autopilot. To a large degree, our behaviors are influenced by our emotions. The more I saw positive impacts of the work we were doing with our coaching model, the more I tried the practice on myself. I learned to slow down my thought process so I could consciously reflect on my decision and its influences. I learned to confront my emotions. That made a big difference in how I processed the root of my emotional reaction to situations and ideas.

Thanks to the work I was doing at the B.R.I.N.G.I.T after school program for middle schoolers and high schoolers, I was able to look at the negative impact of social media on Generation Z (people born after 1994). Many of these students use social media 50-75 percent of the time as their communication method. They connect to the world in seconds via their phones. They introduced me to the latest trends on Snapchat, Musically and Instagram. I released a lot of our program content through those mediums in order to reach them.

The families of the students I work with at B.R.I.N.G.I.T. come from all over the world. We had an incident after President Trump was elected. A student created a Facebook event stating that a boat was now waiting to take all black people back to Africa. We immediately called for a community meeting to diffuse the fear this incident incited. B.R.I.N.G.I.T staff members addressed the impact of social media; specifically how it affects and impacts the real lives of real people.

It was experiences like this that led me to reflect about my own experience with social media and how it was impacting me. I started to identify the negative effect of social media on my own life. I started to pay attention to the things I was posting and what I was reading from others and where I was spending a lot of my time reading and commenting. I conducted an analysis of what drove my posts, comments, status and pictures.  Most of the things I posted were not about how I wanted people to perceive me. I was not trying to deceive people to see a better version of me. I posted things based on what represented me. The posts and comments were based on initiatives and causes. Sometimes the root of my posts was personal too. I felt at times that I needed to post about my family and fun stuff. I did not want people to think that everything I did was work related. However, I did not feel it was necessary to post about every little thing I did with my family. I did not need the validation of my parenting or husband skills by posting things relating to those skills to get likes.

At the same time, being an active father who is present for his kids is very important to me. So is being a good husband who honors his wife, uplifts her, and encourages her to not settle. And these values, I realized, had not found their way into my social media interactions. Those principles were intimate—between me and my family. And it is far more important to validate those I share my life with than to spend endless time seeking validation from a social media community who, knowing only fragments of who I am, make comments like “Oh, wow, you’re such a good father” when I post a photo with my kids.

My Instagram and Facebook activities, although similar, had a different purpose. At times, on Instagram, I posted a lot about shoes. Not because I wanted people to see all the shoes I had. But because I happen to love shoes, especially sneakers. I wanted to express the joy and excitement I get when I see a pair I really like. I admire the functionality of design and how the shoes is put together. I believe if you can afford it, a good pair of shoes is essential. But my response to shoes, first and foremost, was emotional.

 

Everything else I posted on Facebook and Instagram was pretty much the same. I posted a lot about causes and initiatives. As a mission-driven person, I am connected to a lot of causes that focus on improving the lives of others. I eat, drink and sleep that attitude in everything I do. I frequently posted about community initiatives I was working on. I posted about upcoming events where I’d be presenting. I posted a lot about B.R.I.N.G.I.T, which I have been involved with for the last 11 years. I did not post to get a pat on my shoulder or get a word of affirmation for the work I was doing. I posted because I wanted others to become aware of the issues and get involved. I posted because I wanted people to join me in the causes I am passionate about, or find ways to get involved with things they are passionate about.

Social media psychologically combines an action and its desired outcome into a whirlpool fueled by dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. It excites the urge to act. Sometimes it not only takes control of the thought of doing something; it controls the experience itself. Our obsession with our social media activities—the actions taken to produce rewards (likes, for example)—are sometimes influenced by dopamine. Most people are not aware of that impact. Once I was, I felt I needed to understand the influences behind my posts and whether or not I could still engage without the dopamine reward of external affirmations of likes.

The rubbish of self praise, lies and self exaltation overcomes us when we crave likes and positive affirmations through social media. It is s-o-o good. Please give me more, more, more likes. I deserve it. I need it. The reward of likes is addictive. And the more I looked at the influences of our social media engagement, the more I wanted to step away. I wanted to strip back and focus on my own human experience. I wanted to live without relying on a technology system that provided artificial rewards.

For the two months, I was without Facebook and Instagram, I felt like I lost a side of my life. I left Facebook because I wanted to have less distraction and be more in tune with life and my family. But I found myself excluded from the community I helped build through social media. I had my brother post on my dance and speaker pages. He messaged me at times to inform me that someone has contacted me. Even though I have my email address up on those accounts, people still messaged me through those pages instead. Since I had deactivated my personal account and deleted the app from my phone, no one could find me.

Stepping away from Facebook and Instagram was much needed. I had enough time to reflect on the impact it has had on me. I have enjoyed not getting notification of people’s posts or reading political/religion arguments. I have enjoyed not having Facebook and Instagram as a distraction when I am home with my family or when I am at work or waiting in line for something. The experience of disconnecting for a while gave me some much-needed perspective and insight.

But now I have decided to return to Facebook and Instagram—with restrictions! I will only go on it 2-3 times a week. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. I am returning primarily for the community page and the speaking page. Those two pages provided me with opportunities to expand my mission and purpose through the causes and initiatives for which I advocate. I will not post personal stuff. You will not see posts about my children, marriage or material possessions. I do not want my Facebook and Instagram to be a place where I seek affirmation from others. I do not want a dopamine fix from Facebook and Instagram. And I am confident I will stick to these restrictions. If, however, my willpower falters, I will deactivate the accounts indefinitely.

I hear often social media is good for our society. It brings us together and closer. The problem I see is the artificial world it creates. We all get sucked into the gamification of “likes” that is influenced by the algorithm designed for us based on the data we feed it. We forget that certain experiences we see do not accurately reflect the reality of people we admire, love, hate and envy on Facebook and Instagram. Our desire for acceptance and approval gets magnified by the emptiness of our reality.

What we all need to do is create time and space to reflect on the emotional vulnerability we expose our feelings to through Facebook and Instagram. The more we do that, the more ownership we will have over our emotions. And the more we will decrease the chance of being emotionally hacked by the social media algorithm.

You can be in control by consciously reflecting on the impact social media has on you and its influences on your behavior. You can create limitations and restrict the time you spend on it. You can identify the root cause of why you are posting something before you post it. If you identify that your intention is to fulfill something being fed artificially through social media, stop the action and find a different way to fulfill that desire with a realistic experience. Find ways to connect with people in real life. Let people you trust know about what you are discovering about your social media behaviors and find ways to expand those virtual touch points with real life experiences.

“The algorithm will become stronger than you if you give it everything it needs to control you.” (Deo Mwano)