Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?

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Social media makes you more lonely

I’ve been saying it for years (see my first post about it in 2010), social media is bad for you.

It lowers your self-esteem, makes you depressed, more narcissistic, makes you more stupid, and I could go on, especially about Facebook (See here).

Do the social media giants care? of course not. All they care about is large numbers, your personal data, and advertising.

The truth is that social media apps designed to help you communicate with other people actually make you feel more lonely.

The more time young adults spend on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and similar sites the more likely they are to feel cutoff. More than two hours a day of social media use doubles the chance of a person experiencing social isolation.

Both higher numbers of visits and the total time spent online have negative effects according to the American research, carried out in 2014 on almost 1800 people aged 19-32 years of age, by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The researchers said “we are inherently social creatures but modern life tends to compartmentalise us instead of bringing us together”.

They believe that social media use displaces more authentic experiences because the more time a person spends online, the less time is left for real-life contacts. Obvious really.


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Should we dumb down our smartphones to stop us becoming more stupid?

Last September I asked on my other blog: Have we finally realised we need to unplug ourselves from endless apps and social media connections?

aansyq1I described the Light Phone and the fact that the old Nokia 3310 from 2000 was selling well on the internet. Now it’s been announced that the Nokia will be sold again with a larger colour screen but with only basic call and text facilities for around £49 in the UK.

It seems that the smartphone idea was being dumbed-down. Is that a bad idea?

Well in the Times Body & Soul section last weekend they asked “is your smartphone making you stupid?.

41-epxoutyl-_sx309_bo1204203200_They thought it was – if you count a fleeting attention span, a poorer memory, and a more passive intellect as signs of increasing stupidity.

Arianna Huffington‘s book “Thrive: The third metric to redefining success and creating a happier life” made similar points referring to the downside of online life as poor sleep, low attention span, diminishing empathy, not to mention wasted time.

And in Adam Alter‘s new book “Irresistible. The rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked” or in the UK edition “Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching” the author , an associate professor of marketing at New York University’s school of business, describes how the internet changes your brain.

41xdmdoe5wl-_sx336_bo1204203200_Or as he says “Once your cucumber brain is pickled it can never go back to being a cucumber”. Tech companies manipulate you in all sorts of ways using random reinforcement methods (like slot machines), where the unexpected win increases the level of the pleasure chemical dopamine in the brain e.g. using “likes” – you have to check your post because you’re not sure how it will be received.

A company designed an app, Lovematically, that automatically liked everything you posted . It was banned within two hours. Instagram (owned by Facebook) wanted to remain the dealer not have the “online crack” given away for free.

And he’s not the only one writing about this. Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: what the internet is doing to your brain” was listed for a Pulitzer prize in 2011 so he’s been making his points for a few years now.

41gwbs8qckl-_sx327_bo1204203200_He thinks “We’ve never had a technology so intrusive into our moment by moment thinking, perception and attention. … it hijacks our attention faculty. Instead of choosing what we focus on we begin to focus the newest thing on our smartphone, whether it’s important or not”.

He points out that our short-term memory has a limited capacity but the contents can be transferred to our long-term memory through making associations and connections. He says “everyone who has a smartphone and is honest with themselves knows that it is shaping their consciousness and the way they think or don’t think

He cites research at Stanford University which found that media multi-taskers (never a good idea) i.e. those who jump from one social media app to another, browsing or posting, had a weakened anterior cingulate cortex, that part of the brain area involved in high level information and emotion processing. They had smaller grey matter density and decreased cognitive control. 

So  a shrunken brain, more impulsive, and less empathetic?

Larry Rosen, a professor in psychology at California State University, agrees about the effect of smartphones and says “We don’t process information as deeply any more. Our brains are wired to process it just enough to get it through the moment, knowing full well that if we need it, we know where to find it again because we have this great external memory called Mr Google“.

41qm9rez-wl-_ac_us218_ 41r7ybyxnjl-_ac_us218_Author of “iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us”  and co-author of “Distracted Minds: Ancient Brains in a high tech world“, he believes the short attention span we now have is linked to smartphone technology.

The smartphone “stimulated this concept of ‘do it and get out’. We’re very task driven and categorise every action as a task.”

Now that we don’t have to rely on our recall as much we’ll see less of the taxi-driver effect where their hippcampuses, the part of the brain associated with long-term memory and spatial awareness, became more developed than normal because of learning “the knowledge.

Tech companies like to promote intelligence based on the idea that the more information we take in the smarter we get. Carr believes the opposite is true. “We don’t get smart, we don’t become knowledgeable through the speed with which we take in information, but through our ability to synthesise information into context, into some broader understanding of the world”.

He argues that feeding us information like feeding babies milk makes us more dependent, lazier and more accepting. We become less able to apply intellectual or critical analyses to the information.

Acquiring true knowledge takes time and “requires us to think without interruption or distraction. All higher forms of thought, reasoning, critical thinking, require control over our attention; require the ability to turn off the flow of information and think deeply and over an extended period of time about things.

To develop common sense we need to think for ourselves says Richard Graham, a psychiatrist and technology addiction specialist in London. “Otherwise we become passive recipients of all sorts of information – one would file fake news into that category. One absolutely needs to have that mental agility and critical thinking to not become passive to information and judgement”.

So not looking good is it? And there’s more. What about its impact on our creativity? Well smartphones and social media might enable collaboration but being “always on” doesn’t allow much time for daydreaming which, according to neuroscientists at the University of California, leads to the brain engaging in a default mode of neural processing linked to “positive mental health  and cognitive abilities like reading, comprehension, and divergent thinking“.

While bouncing ideas off people can lead to creativity “original individual thinking does require an ability to be contemplative and reflective and introspective. None of these things can happen when you’re completely bombarded with information” says Carr.

And talking of collaboration, social media users might believe that they’re being thoughtful sending messages to their “friends” but it’s a fairly shallow and primitive method. Is sending someone a text message as meaningful as writing a letter or sending a card? “Online empathy is weak empathy and not as good as real-world empathy”. 

Sending a text message is often an emotional response without any thought going into it because it’s too easy. That lack of time for reflection makes us less human. No matter how many friends you think you have online the sad truth is that most of them aren’t real friends.

And part of this is due to the fact that we hate being bored. Students would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly in a room for 15 minutes (University of Virginia). It seems we’d rather play mindless games that reward us with flashing lights or different levels than sit and reflect.

Have you noticed that when you watch a TV series on Amazon or a film on Netflix it automatically moves to the next episode? Its default setting is opting in not out and given our predilection for generally not changing things (Brexit being a rare counter example) its easy to see how viewers get sucked in.

Alter says silicon valley leaders are hypocrites who know the damage they are doing to people’s lives. Steve Jobs banned his kids from having iPads and many restrict screen time. He says games designers avoid playing World of Warcraft because they’ve seen how immersive socially interactive games can turn intelligent but lonely young men into overweight college dropouts.

The designer of Flappy Bird actually took the game app down because he feared the effect it was having on people.

So what’s to be done if we are not to succumb to smartphone induced mediocrity? Alter suggests the usual such as parental restraints, stopping programmes before the end so you can resist the next instalment (bloody annoying if you ask me) , or punishing yourself.

One tech entrepreneur apparently hired a woman from Craigslist to slap him across the face ever time he opened his Facebook account. You can use a program called WastenoTime which blocks you accessing youTube or Facebook between certain hours. Or if you use your smartphone more than an agreed number of hours you can pledge to donate to a cause you hate.

Or you can just leave your phone at home and go out for some fresh air.

I’ve posted before about nomophobia and trying to overcome anxiety from FOMO or FOBO? Research shows that half of smartphone owners are spending two to four  hours on our phones every day and say they couldn’t live without it, and a quarter of them more than that.

If you’re in denial about how much time you spend on your phone you can get an app called Moment which tracks how much time you spend on it. Try it, it might be a wake-up call to get a life! 

Facebook used by Hamas to lure Israeli soldiers

thief_coming_from_monitor_1600_wht_10122The Israeli army has used Facebook in the past to catch people trying to avoid national service.

Now its sworn enemy Hamas has used the same social media tool to try and lure Israeli soldiers into conversations by opening fake accounts with racy photographs of  girls taken from real accounts.

They then ask the soldiers to download a video messaging app which was in fact malware which allowed them to hack the contents of the phones and activate the cameras and microphones.

They hoped to get photos and information from inside army bases and armoured vehicles. The honeytrap operation lasted for a month and was focused on troops near the Gaza border.

Israeli intelligence  sources said that no sensitive information was hacked and that the majority of troops hacked were low-ranking. “There was a potential for serious harm to national security but the actual damage done as minor. Anyone who was infected is not any more”.

Previously Hamas has tried to infiltrate Facebook groups (of which there are thousands) used by army units by posing as Israeli soldiers in order to access sensitive information.

Hamas declined to comment. As far as I know no-one has asked Jeremy Corbin.

Facebook – why should anyone trust it? Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t – he employs a dozen people to censor comments about it and him.


Facebook can be used against you


dislike_ink_stamp_1600_wht_9113If you publicise your extravagant social activities on Facebook and other social media you run the risk of it being held against you.

Not just in your career (about which I have posted previously elsewhere) but in getting a mortgage or a loan .

A new company called Big Data Scoring is offering its services to banks and other financial organisations and says there has been a lot of interest.

It uses models and algorithms to predict the likelihood you will default on a loan based on thousands of data points including social media, blogs, web pages you have visited and information available on google.

Lenders ask permission from Facebook account holders to access the information as part of the loan application.”This is not as stalkerish as it sounds.We don’t look at the photographs or read people’s messages. We focus on the overall nature of the profile – how…

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Facebook is a false friend

P1010034Just because Facebook stopped Admiral Insurance from using its site to analyse your personality profile  doesn’t mean it wants to protect your privacy. 

If you believe that you probably believe that we are controlled by an alien master race (and I don’t mean those people in Silicon valley, or do I?). They just used the PR gaffe by Admiral to boost their own privacy credentials when the whole raison d’être behind Facebook is not to have any privacy. They’ve even experimented on you before in a mood manipulation experiment.

And even if you believe Facebook is not to blame (and of course you’re really the only one to blame, Facebook just makes it easy for you) there are lots of other data companies can use to make moral judgements and assess your risk factors. Your tweets, photos posted by your neighbours on Facebook, Google earth taking a walk round your neighbourhood, and your postcode itself.

Using algorithms they can categorise you and assess your creditworthiness. If you don’t have a credit history or have only just moved in and are not on the electoral register don’t worry, they’ll use your neighbours instead. If you live in an area where credit scoring is poor that may work against you as “banks take the view that birds of a feather flock together” according to Justin Basini, founder and CEO of ClearScore, a ratings agency.

Erik Kert, CEO of Big Data Scoring, puts a more positive spin on this data mining saying “scrutiny of online behaviour is a positive way to boost the financial prospects of people with a thin credit file“. Well not if you are a regular user of gambling sites or a shopaholic surely?

He says his company uses algorithms to predict your “expected probability of default” based on tens of thousands of data points gathered from the internet including social media, web pages you have visited, in fact anything you have made publicly available online.

This “big data” is made available to lenders in the absence of other credit history. Kert says it focuses on how active you are with your online profiles, what sort of activity you are involved in, how you access the internet, and what all that says about your personality. You don’t even need to use a psychologist – the computer decides! (Having said that Cambridge University has developed a tool “Apply magic sauce” to predict your personality based on your Facebook page).

A mortgage broker at Coreco conceded that postcode profiling was unfair if used but said actual methods of creditworthiness assessment are kept a close secret. However “if the information is readily available in the public domain, then lenders are bound to do additional research on people they are about to lend money to. Although nothing has been proven, I would suggest that those looking to apply for a mortgage should be careful. Gambling stories, wild nights out and lavish spending boasts should probably be avoided“.

Precisely! You can’t really blame them can you when you are prepared to put so much of your life on the internet little thinking it will come back to bite you. Your digital footprint never goes away as people have found when applying for jobs or going through a divorce.

Organisations like the Open Rights Group are concerned by these developments and believe society should think about the ethics involved. “Big data is often perceived as being able to deliver neutral decisions but algorithms and poor data can perpetuate social biases on race, gender, religion, or sexuality. There’s also the question of transparency. If we don’t know the full criteria being used how can we appeal against them?”

Young people or those on a low income shouldn’t be pushed into sharing their social media to secure discounts (one of the issues Admiral was criticised for). The right to keep things private shouldn’t be the preserve of those who can afford it

I agree with the last point wholeheartedly but perhaps if people weren’t so willing to be so transparent themselves and share every aspect of their lives, almost by the hour in some cases, they wouldn’t find themselves enmeshed in someone’s algorithm.

Posting more photos on Facebook helps you live longer?

stick_figure_liking_it_500_wht_9170According to US research Facebook users who upload the most photographs are less likely to die prematurely. The researchers analysed 12 million users in California and linked them to the state’s public health records.

The top 10% of people posting the most photographs were 30% less likely to die earlier than the average user. 

It had nothing to do with the number of “likes“. And it wasn’t how many people you invited to be your friend but how many invited you that was important.

Even the average Facebook user is less likely to die prematurely than a n0n-user! However that analysis didn’t allow for differences in socio-economic status e.g. homeless people are unlikely to be on Facebook.

Does it also suggest that being “popular” makes you live longer? Maybe. According to the researchers Hobbs and Fowler, it’s hard to say which way that goes. It could be that individuals who are more likely to live longer are more attractive to others in the first place. They say that needs more research.

The researchers felt that taking photographs indicated a strong network of family and friends which research has shown benefits health (social relationships seem to be as predictive of lifespan as smoking, and more predictive than obesity and physical inactivity).

The researchers concede thatIt is only on the extreme end, spending a lot of time online with little evidence of being connected to people otherwise, that we see a negative association”.

But that assumes that people taking photographs are also interacting face-to-face. How many of the photographs were “selfies”?  Do narcissistic people live longer – or would they hate to see themselves ageing online?

And other research suggest that Facebook users are not necessarily the healthiest or happiestOne study links heavy use of social media with depression.

Sitting at a computer or desk for hours is associated with increased risks of heart disease and diabetes.

Staring at screens throughout the day and night disrupts your sleep patterns and your cognitive ability.

And let’s not forget Facebook friends aren’t real, are they?

Facebook is for losers

figure_bed_computer_1600_wht_14033Most people who use Facebook do so to add positive updates but generally people who use Facebook tend to be more frustrated, angry and lonely.

This might be because positive updates from their “friends” make them feel inadequate.

Now researchers at Ohio University have discovered that people in a bad mood turn to social network sites and look up people less attractive or less successful than themselves rather than those more attractive and more successful.

Given a choice of profiles to look at on a new social networking link called SocialLink participants who had been put in a negative state of mind – by being given poor feedback on a test – spent more time looking at the profiles of people who were less attractive and less successful.

The message is if you’re feeling bad look for someone who’s feeling even worse and regain your emotional superiority.


It’s been over a year since I posted about Facebook but my 4 year-old post “So many friends but still lonely” still regularly appears in my top 5 most-read posts so clearly strikes a chord..

My previous post about Facebook was eighteen months ago when I summed up the uses (or mis-uses) of Facebook in “Facebook Follies“.

But there’s so much stuff out there about Facebook it’s hard to keep up.