It’s 3am, and you find yourself deep in a Youtube, Instagram, or other application’s rabbit hole. If you’re lucky, you ended up watching hours of funny Vine compilations or cute cat videos. Others may instead stumble upon darker corners of the internet, where conspiracy theories and dangerous ideologies run wild. Maybe, if you were watching videos about nutrition or fitness, you end up in a rabbit hole of disordered eating.
While in this rabbit hole adventure, you lost your sense of self for a several hours; it’s like your control of what plays on the screen vanished. Maybe you kept saying to yourself that you will go to bed after this next video, story, or reel, only to continue letting videos play, one after the other.
Why does it feel so challenging to tear our eyes away from these apps and websites once we open them? And how do we end up watching content that appears so far away from where we start? These questions have bothered me ever since I first read about how computer programmers created special algorithms to make these platforms addicting. I have since spent the last couple of weeks digging into more information about the data social media apps collect, which has led me into a rabbit hole about rabbit holes.
The vast majority of us use some type of social media or log on to certain websites whose main mechanism for making a profit relies on taking and retaining our attention. If we decide to use these websites and give them tons of data about ourselves for free, shouldn’t we understand how they can impact our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors? I sure think so.
The Big Tech and Social Media Problem
The internet is incredible. That remains an understatement. The fact that human beings invented a vast network that allows us to connect with people halfway across the world continues to baffle me, even though I grew up using it nearly every day. At least after we upgraded from dial up.
The internet can provide a limitless body of information to nearly anybody, and we can learn so many amazing things about ourselves and the world around us. We can connect with loved ones who live thousands of miles away, and we can shop for candles that will be delivered right to our doorstep in 5-7 business days. I love the internet.
But I also hate it.
Having a limitless amount of information at our fingertips has led to so many invaluable innovations over the years, but it also produced the hundreds of junk emails that flood my inbox everyday. The internet has also morphed everyday people into individuals with narcissistic tendencies that care more about their online presence than their neighbors. We all know the internet, specifically big tech and social media, have their downfalls. But they go beyond online solicitation and FOMO.
As an American citizen that values my freedom, the idea of being bought and sold feels completely disgusting. But in a way, that’s what happens every time we log onto a social media platform. That might sound a bit like a conspiracy theory of its own, but hear me out.
What drives a business? Many small businesses begin with a mission to provide people with a quality product or service, but the main driver will always be profits. Although free apps and social media sites do not sell a product or service to us, the users, they still manage to bring in boatloads of that sweet, sweet cash.
If they avoid charging membership fees for us to have access to their content, and they do not sell a physical product or service, what do they sell to make a profit? Us. More specifically, our time and attention. We the users are the product they are selling.
Clearly platforms like Youtube and Facebook make the bulk of their money by selling ad spaces. Advertising has sold products and generated big bucks for ad agencies for a long time. Facebook’s or Twitter’s ad spaces differ greatly from traditional magazine ads or billboard, however. These newfangled ads are targeted and strategically placed on the newsfeeds of those who seem most likely to purchase what an ad pushes.
Targeted advertising opened many doors for large and small businesses alike. Targeted marketing works much better than a broad ad campaign that costs a fortune to produce. If you’re a young female, chances are good that you won’t be drawn in by an ad about arthritis remedies or librarian chains for your glasses. If you’re an older adult, these same arthritis remedy ads might prompt you to order twenty caseloads in an attempt to get rid of the pain you feel in your knees and joints. Or maybe you’ll place an order for a librarian chain because you keep losing your glasses.
How do big tech companies like Youtube know who to target with specialized advertisements? Big tech collects and uses more data to make informed advertising choices than we can even begin to comprehend. When we spend time on any free platform like a social media site, we gleefully give away tons of data about who we are, where we live, what we do, and what makes us tick. Marketers in past decades couldn’t even begin to dream about collecting and capitalizing on this volume of data.
Complicated software created by the world’s best computer programmers then uses algorithms to sort through these data points, and send specified ads to people who appear most likely to succumb to their marketing tactics. This typically gives advertisers and businesses a significant return on investment.
In summary, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram and more give us free stuff that we willingly spend years of our lives using, like entertainment and the ability to talk to our friends. We get hooked on those services and release tons of data about ourselves, which eventually gets exploited to help make these platforms hit their quarterly goals.
It’s a great system if you’re in the big tech world, or you are trying to sell a product to people who frequently use social media. Targeted marketing used to require tons of data collection, and involve costly campaigns. Now, targeted marketing can come to companies for as little as a few dollars.
I have tried running Instagram ads to promote my website, and I could select advertisements for as low as $2 a day. Of course, your ads can reach more people if you invest $100 a day instead of a measly $2, but the customization of budget appeals to business owners trying to sell products or services.
Hopefully by now we can agree that the product or service big tech sells is our time and attention. And basic logic tells us that the more time and attention they can get from us, the more time and attention they can sell to advertisers. It’s in these business’ best interest to invest heavily in creating tools that will keep us using their platforms as much as possible, as this can enhance their bottom line. Features like Youtube’s or Netflix’s automatic play after finishing a video or episode certainly play a role in how long we watch.
These sidebar suggestions on Youtube also provide carefully curated options that will grab our attention and pique our curiosity. My sidebar typically consists of inspiring TedTalks, indie or folk music videos, and bloopers from The Office or other comedies. These options are perfect at grabbing my attention and making me want to stay just a bit longer on the site. For others, fishing/hunting videos may do the trick. Or long-from explanations about the existence of big foot and the Loch Ness monster may tantalize another individual.
Sidebar videos may not be related whatsoever to the video that you are currently watching, but they show up as a culmination of all the videos you have watched, especially the ones you have watched all the way through. If Youtube’s algorithm does its job well, you will keep on clicking, and eventually spend an entire day on the site. Unfortunately, encouraging us to stay sometimes often means riling us up or getting us angry.
Anger works particularly well at getting people onto your platform and keeping them for hours and hours. 24 hour news channels exploit anger and fear in their viewers too, by making them angry with charged or inflammatory headlines and constantly playing sound bites with flashy “breaking news” graphics dominating the screen.
Sparking outrage about this or that, pointing fingers at they or them, and leaving out key information in complicated issues drive a wedge into families and communities, and this has resulted in an unbelievably divided population. At least in America, and several other parts of the world. These channels and websites continue down this path because it has proven to be remarkably profitable time and time again.
Executives don’t care how badly this can mess people up, they just care about fabricating shock and angst, so that people will continue tuning in and advertisers will flock to their station. On platforms like Youtube, people may tune into calm political commentary videos, but their algorithm might start showing more and more provocative versions as they begin spending more time watching political videos.
This is how people often fall into conspiracy theories and other dark, scary ideologies. On the New York Times’ Rabbit Hole podcast, one young man started off by watching videos about self improvement for hours on end because he felt lost in life. From there, he started watching videos of people like Joe Rogan interviewing conspiracy theorists and other interesting characters. The algorithm eventually pulled him into long-form videos about white supremacy and the “importance” of ensuring white people remain the race in power.
This isn’t just reserved for Youtube, either. Instagram and Pinterest, as well as many other social media and entertainment websites use similar algorithms to show you content that is most likely to make you stick around. Often, that means showing you controversial stuff that keeps you glued to your screen.
As it turns out, 64% of people on Facebook who joined a QAnon or other extremist group did so because it was suggested to them in their newsfeed by the Facebook algorithm.1 Clearly, helping people descend into the throes of conspiracy theories, dangerous or benign, is not a great look or feature of these big tech companies. But why should it matter to those of us who casually browse these platforms and are not vulnerable to falling into these types of rabbit hoes? And how the heck does this relate to diet culture? Let’s talk about it.
How Rabbit Holes Relate to Disordered Eating
At this point, you may be wondering why a dietitian feels the need to talk about big tech rabbit holes, especially regarding conspiracy theories and radicalization. It may not seem related to the anti-diet rhetoric this website typically discusses. But, big tech rabbit holes don’t just pose a threat because they drive anger and make people join cults. They’re dangerous because they can open the door to obsession about nearly any topic, including a person’s appearance and strategies a person can use to shrink their body.
Let’s say a young man or woman decides they would like to change their body. Maybe they want to lose weight and get thinner or gain muscle because of social pressure, so they take to Youtube to look for a diet or workout plan. This may start off relatively mild, and they even might check out evidence-based channels like Mayo Clinic.
When a person spends a significant amount of time looking at videos or posts about losing weight, even if those videos are relatively trustworthy, this tells the algorithm that these types of videos make this particular viewer likely to stick around. The sidebar or automatic plays become increasingly focused on body image and weight loss. From here, there is a better-than-decent chance that these videos will slowly but surely descend into disordered eating land even if the viewer began watching scientifically sound nutrition or exercise videos.
Maybe after watching videos from actual institutions about losing weight or gaining muscle through slow and steady lifestyle changes, the algorithm begins spitting out suggestions like “Lose 15 Pounds in 15 Days With This One Easy Trick”, or “This One Supplement Will Cause Major Muscle Gains”. Compared to more responsibly made videos, these suggestions promising quick fixes seem much more appealing.
When these rabbit holes go unchecked, they can eventually lead a person to find videos in their recommendations that actually provide tips for how to get better at disordered eating. This can range from sneaky videos, like appetite suppression techniques, to openly dangerous material that clearly exists to help people “successfully” purge or eat even less than they already do.
Even if a person doesn’t spend hours on Youtube, they can get sucked into online discussion forums like Reddit, or get Pinterest pin suggestions after viewing and pinning weight loss pins. Their Instagram live feed could be full of pyramid schemers touting supplements or disordered eating tactics, and Twitter might suggest following fitspo accounts.
Radicalization from these algorithms isn’t exclusively for people to fall into extremest ideations about politics. Rabbit holes can radicalize people’s beliefs about diet, exercise, body image, and other health-related topics, prompting them to take on wild stances and unfounded claims about nutrition and fitness.
This is one way that people who used to believe in sound science end up convinced that you should drink only of cold pressed juice or that coconut oil can cure cancer. They might believe in detox drinks or incredibly strict diets free of nearly anything but one or two food groups. People who fall into these diet or fitness traps have undergone a different type of radicalization, but it can still cause can cause major harm, and even result in the loss of life.
People might spend most of their earnings on expensive supplements, or they may quit their jobs and become a ketone pyramid scheme salesperson. Maybe they refuse to eat anything that doesn’t carry an organic label, or they give up all desserts and comfort foods. If they descend down the radical fitness rabbit hole far enough, they may even encounter DMP, a chemical people used for weight loss that has killed dozens of people. You can read more about DMP and other weight loss pills in my post Diet Pills: High Risk, Low Reward.
Discussing the dangers of online rabbit holes matters because nearly anyone can fall into them and struggle to get out. We have all seen people we knew in high school, family members, or close friends descend into a weird or scary set of beliefs on social media about a wide range of topics. The algorithms that were designed to keep us on these platforms have played a part in leading people to more extreme beliefs about nearly any topic.
These are huge, ginormous problems, and I cannot possibly dig into all of the complexities in one blog post. There are experts that know much more about online radicalization and social media algorithms than I ever will, but this stuff really struck a chord with me, and I felt the need to share it with anyone who will listen.
We as a society must think about big tech’s role in our lives, and we have to approach new solutions and innovations with caution. Each new feature of these platforms can have dozens of unintended, yet highly influential consequences.
Fortunately, we as individuals aren’t completely powerless, and there are some things we can do to protect ourselves and, hopefully our loved ones, from falling into dangerous dieting rabbit holes or digging into pernicious conspiracy theories.
What Can Be Done?
I have just laid out some scary stuff about technology that many of us utilize every day, sometimes every hour. These aren’t small problems, and it may feel overwhelming to even start comprehending how we ended up here. The social media industry carries so much weight in our societies, and many of our jobs and livelihoods rely on their platforms.
Personally, I always hate when blog posts or articles lay out huge, sweeping problems, and then leave me feeling hopeless. I’m a doer, and a bit of a busy body, so I love when people give me action items that can help get the ball rolling on solving big problems. So here are a few things you can do:
Learn As Much As You Can About These Issues
One of the most important things we can do get informed and spread awareness about these problems. I find myself saying that all the time about certain issues, such as bad science and disparities in eating disorder treatment, but it’s true. We can’t even begin to work on things if we, and those around us, aren’t aware they are even happening to us.
To learn more about big tech’s role in our lives, I would highly recommend you check out the following resources:
- The Social Dilemma on Netflix
What if you could get a bunch of former tech giants together and ask them what they think about how social media and technology have changed us? The Social Dilemma on Netflix did just that. This documentary is comprised of mostly interviews with people who work, or worked, in the big tech industry, and it investigates their thoughts about how we use technology, and how technology uses us.
It also features a story about a family struggling to spend less time on their screens, which does an excellent job of illustrating how these technologies impact the lives of everyday individuals.
- Armchair Expert podcast with Tristan Harris
Tristan Harris was featured in The Social Dilemma. He used to work at Google, and wrote up a report about his ethical concerns about its influence on everyday people. Some of his coworkers agreed, but ultimately, nothing came out of it. Eventually, Tristan Harris created his own institute, the Center for Humane Technology.
Tristan is clearly a smart guy that is concerned about these issues, and we need more people like him raising these questions and investigating possible solutions.
Learn more about Tristan and his projects here.
- Rabbit Hole podcast from The New York Times
This podcast brings a rare insight into someone’s decent from being a lonely, somewhat lost young man into a person who compulsively watched Youtube videos and became steeped in dangerous ideologies. It explores his Youtube watch history, and the reporters do an awesome job of pointing out key areas in this timeline that tipped the scales toward radicalization.
Rabbit Hole is intense. There are soundbites of videos that discuss white supremacy candidly, as well as the origins and happenings of QAnon. I recommend taking breaks between episodes, as it’s full of heavy stuff, and it deserves proper reflections after each episode. Rabbit Hole is important work to aid in the understanding of how big tech and social media can truly change who we are.
Simply being aware of how these algorithms work and motivations behind social media platforms can work wonders to prevent people from mindlessly getting sucked in. Sure, you may still occasionally find yourself watching a few more Youtube videos than you intended, but knowing the potential damage these platforms can cause may encourage some to use this technology with more caution than ever before.
Additionally, being aware that there is potential for radicalization can make you think twice before you click on a headline or title that stirs your emotions. This may not be statistically proven, but anecdotally, my own habits have changed since learning about these technology issues. When visiting YouTube, I look for a specific type of video and then get out as soon as I can. Easier said than done in some instances, but it’s thought process I never employed before.
Investigate Your Relationship With Technology
If you know me, you know I love some reflection questions that could also be excellent journal prompts. In regard to social media and big tech algorithms, here are a few that I believe are important to investigate:
- How do you interact with these platforms?
- Have you felt yourself and your beliefs change because of what you have seen on social media?
- What kinds of videos or posts make you tick and increase the likelihood you will click on them?
- How has your experience with social media changed over time?
These questions are important ones to ask ourselves anytime we end up spending copious amounts of time using them, especially when it’s by accident.
I am all for using social media to gain new perspectives and learn about different viewpoints, but we ought to get suspicious when we suddenly feel ourselves becoming an entirely different person.
Use Tools to Limit Your Time Spent on These Platforms
If you’re like me, you can’t rely on willpower alone to prevent yourself from spending all day on these websites and apps. As a result, I have come to rely on a few tools on my computer and phone that either limit my time on certain websites and apps, or block my phone for a certain period of time.
For my computer, I use 1Focus, which is a free app that lets you block off certain websites for a designated period of time. I have to block sites like Reddit, Instagram, Facebook, real estate websites, and all kinds of news apps, otherwise I would get absolutely nothing done. This app helps me focus on tasks, like writing blog posts, and it also helps me spend more time doing things that actually matter.
For my phone, Flipd has been the most effective tool for me. If you have an iPhone you can use block certain websites and apps using content restriction settings, but I usually need a full block. After I activate my Flipd app, the screen has a countdown timer anytime I open it up. It provides an incentive to stick it out until my timer is up, but there is a way to cancel your session if something comes up.
Flipd is cool because you can make groups and encourage one another to all reduce your screen time. I could see this being a helpful tool for teachers trying to get their students to focus. I have also found that putting my phone in another room prevents me from doom scrolling and spending hours on Instagram, so that’s another strategy.
If you are feeling completely brave and/or fed up with big tech, I say you should just delete your accounts on these platforms altogether. Don’t let these corporations profit off of selling your time and attention, and stop letting their products take over your life. Easier said than done, I know. Especially for people like me who use social media to promote their work. Like most things in life, though, it doesn’t have to be black or white. You don’t have to use social media all day or not at all. You can find balance somewhere in the middle.
Ask Questions and Get Curious About What You Read
We have all seen a tweet or headline that makes our faces instantly flush with red, hot rage or overwhelming sadness and confusion. When this happens, check in with yourself and see why this particular piece of media got under your skin. Pick apart the inflammatory words and evaluate whether this story comes from a reliable source.
When seeing a news story that makes you feel scared or angry, ask the following questions:
- What is the purpose of this piece?
- Is it to inform, anger, scare, divide, or deceive?
- How ready was I to believe a headline or article was true?
- Did I immediately agree with the headline because it aligns with my worldview, or did I immediately dismiss it because it challenges my world view?
- Who paid for this piece to be written, and what interest might they have in swaying my views?
- Does this piece tell the entire story, or are there important details being left out intentionally?
These are just a few important questions you should reflect on when a news story, tweet, or post makes you feel particularly stirred up. I cannot stress how important it is to avoid looking at a headline, or reading one article about a topic, and taking it as completely and unequivocally true no matter what. We are tempted to do this when an article or story confirms our worldview, but reading articles that challenge our assumptions is imperative toward helping our understanding about important issues.
Learn More About and Support Media Literacy
Media literacy is a foundation of critical thinking skills that helps people understand how the media affects us. My librarians in school did a wonderful job of teaching us about where to find reliable information, and how to sort out the BS. Unfortunately, not every student has access to excellent librarians and school resources like I did.
Media literacy skills will become even more important for future generations, as their lives become even more flooded with misinformation and misleading claims. The ability to find reliable sources and take everything with a grain of salt will prove to be absolutely invaluable.
If you are interested in learning more about media literacy yourself, check out Crash Course’s class on Media Literacy and the News Literacy Project. If you want to talk to your kids about media literacy, check out these guides from Common Sense Media. They have Q&A’s for kids of all ages.
Big tech and social media have undoubtedly shaped who we are as human species in the last decade or so. We no longer interact in the same ways, and our forms of entertainment have also changed. Most of these social media platforms were relatively benign in their beginning- they served as a place where we could be silly and share memes. Over time, they became used for more sinister pursuits, such as peddling conspiracy theories, spreading dangerous disinformation, and providing platforms for people to radicalize each other further and further.
It may be too late for these platforms to return to the goofy, light-hearted versions of themselves, but big tech is finally beginning to take a look at its role in shaping the minds of people all over the world. Youtube has begun employing a huge team of people who try to find dangerous discourse and remove it, but thousands of videos are uploaded every minute. Other social media sites have begun banning certain hashtags and removing accounts that use hate speech.
These measures may reduce political radicalization across their platforms, which has potential to make a real difference in making our world a safer place. At the same time, I don’t know if we will ever see the day where dangerous diet practices and unqualified health gurus will be banned unless they use a slur or cause direct harm. That doesn’t mean their influence isn’t alarming or a threat, it just means they may be perceived as less hazardous than more outright menacing forces.
Either way, we are well past due for a deep reflection on how we all use technology and whether we want to continue along this slippery slope. I believe in the power of these technologies to benefit society greatly, but they come with significant drawbacks that must be investigated.
As Always, A Book Recommendation
I spent the last 4,000 words or so trashing social media and big tech companies about how they can influence our lives in profound, yet not desirable ways. Sometimes I need to escape my own world for a bit when I think about these huge, complex issues, and I often do that with a dang good book.
One such dang good book is Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. I have read most of Larson’s works, but this is by far my favorite. It follows a few different stories that take place in Chicago just before they hosted The World’s Fair in the late 1800’s. It’s full of history, mystery, and human innovation, and it’s unlike anything else I have ever read. It also features a deep dive into America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes.
If you are trying to spend less time on social media, but you regularly struggle to get into books, give this one a try. Despite reading it for a second time, I found myself absolutely enthralled, especially in the second half of the book.
I highly encourage you to carry a book with you wherever you go, like you would a cellphone. Instead of scrolling through social media in waiting rooms, catch a few pages of an interesting novel. Learn from nonfiction books or explore new worlds from fiction rather than give social media companies more information about your whereabouts and interests, so they can more effectively advertise to you.
As a proud Indie Bound affiliate, I get a small commission on books and products sold using the links on my website. It doesn’t cost you anything extra! I only recommend books that I truly love and believe in, and your purchases on Indie Bound through my website support both my work and small bookstores. Thanks!
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