Depression, for instance, has been described as a form of ‘cognitive rigidity’, where the system fails to adjust how sensitive it is to corrective feedback from the world. For people in good mental health, emotional feedback allows them to flexibly tune their expectations: sometimes it makes sense to ‘write off’ a prediction error as just noise, rather than see it as something that demands a change in their generative model of the world; other times, it makes sense to change our model because of the error. In depression, researchers hypothesise that we lose this ability to move back and forth between more or less ‘sensitive’ states, which results in rising and unmanageable prediction error. Eventually, we come to predict the inefficacy and failure of our own actions – which in turn becomes a self-reinforcing prediction, which we achieve some minimal satisfaction from confirming. At the level of the person who is depressed, this manifests in feelings such as helplessness, isolation, lack of motivation and an inability to find pleasure in the world.
I’ve suffered from depression for most of my life, and I can of course recognize when those feelings of “helplessness, isolation, lack of motivation and an inability to find pleasure in the world” happen, and my best medicine to combat them has been both giving myself time to heal and surrounding my life with as much pleasure as I could find.
I started to use social media in high school when I first joined Friendster and MySpace, but those were just silly diversions and not really what we recognize as social media today. Around this time, I spent a lot of time in AOL chat rooms where I mostly wrote “a/s/l” and “15/m/ca” (or whatever) and wait to see who would chat with me. I remember I made about a dozen “friends” this way that I contacted on and off throughout my time in high school. I remember friends from South Dakota and Texas to this day, but I don’t remember their names anymore. It’s been ages since I’ve thought about this. Wow. But then I joined Facebook in 2004 when a freshman at USC, and I’ve been a part of a social media platform ever since, at the expense to my mental health.
For me, social media was an easy way to socialize. I didn’t have to see people, and I didn’t have to talk to have conversations with them. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve battled with my stutter, and to compensate, I learned to both speak fast and to mumble, to not give my stutter a chance to happen and make me feel bad about myself. But this, in turn, made me even more difficult to understand, and whenever somebody said, “Huh?” or “What’d you say?”, I felt bad and I would just shake my head and say, “Nothing,” or “Nah, not important.” And because of this, I had a very hard time making friends, something Facebook “fixed.”
So I grew used to socializing this way, chatting, making plans, etc. And because I went to film school, most of the things my friends and I did was, well, watch movies, one of the most anti-social activities ever invented. And I loved it. I wrote and expressed myself with my stories, and I wrote and expressed myself on Facebook. But because Facebook and social media was how I made friends, I spent a lot of time alone and seeking validation on these platforms.
Later in the essay, the two authors write that:
So-called ‘Snapchat surgery’ makes perfect sense within the predictive processing framework. If we become accustomed to our own doctored appearance, and to receiving all of the feedback associated with it, soon the level of validation available offline will be registered as mounting prediction error. That’s likely to result in feelings of stress, and inadequacy. Through the lens of predictive processing, we see that getting surgery to look more like a filtered image is just the system doing what it always does: it’s no different from grabbing a blanket as the temperature begins to drop. We’re sampling the world to bring us back into an expected state. But social media is capable of displacing our self-image so much that the only way to rectify the error and meet those expectations is to surgically alter the way we look.
Emphasis mine. Social media taught me that the only way to be liked is how many likes, hearts, comments, @-mentions, or whatever other metric in place each of my posts generated. Every time I posted something, I intentionally glued myself to whatever app it was I posted to and waited. I waited to see the reactions happen in real time, and whenever I didn’t get enough or when the one person I wanted to reply didn’t, I felt bad. I felt awful. I felt like hurting myself. This is so damn ridiculous that I can’t believe I’m writing these words right now. Why would I do that? Why would I care?
Of course, there’s a more obvious way to alleviate these problems: spend less time online. For some of us, this is easier said than done, as mounting evidence supports the suspicion that social media can be addictive. A comprehensive review in 2015 defined social media addiction as a disproportionate concern with and drive to use social media that impairs other areas of life, and found that roughly 10 per cent of users exhibit symptoms of addiction. Interestingly, this is around the same percentage of people who have problems with alcohol – but while the addictive hooks of alcohol are relatively well understood, those of social media are not. Predictive processing might once again hold the key to understanding exactly how the features of particular platforms come to have such an effect.
I was addicted. It makes sense. Social media has been a part of my life for over 20 years now, and the first step toward healing is admitting you have a problem. I have a problem. I know this. I’ve known this, but I feel like now, I’m trying, finally, to do something about it.
And I have two things I’m trying to do to improve this situation for myself. One is to identify the friends I have now and start trying to improve my relationship with them. Yesterday, a friend of mine confronted me and asked me why I haven’t been talking to her as much recently, and I finally confided in her with some of my thoughts of depression and suicide, and I think (hope?) our friendship can improve because of it. It was scary and I felt very vulnerable, but after I said the words out loud, I felt better. Is that selfish? I’m not sure. I hope it isn’t.
The second thing I want to do is increase my number of friends. I saw this photo in an article in The Atlantic the other day that I really resonated with. It shows a rough estimate of an average person’s average friend circles. Now let me tell you, I don’t think I have any intimates, close friends, best friends, or good friends, and I definitely don’t think I have 150 “friends.” This is one area I would really like to improve, but I don’t know how, not really.
Everyone says it’s tough to make friends as an adult. If that’s not a challenge worth accepting then I don’t know what is. So: challenge accepted.