The Opportunity Cost of Social Media Use (It’s Probably Worse Than You Think)

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I deleted Instagram off my phone a few weeks ago. I do this from time to time and I always feel better when I do, which makes me wonder:

Why do I keep re-downloading it?

Logically, if I’m happier, more focused, and just a better human without it, which I believe I am, then WTF is this addict-like behavior about?

It’s like an alcoholic that thinks beer is the problem, not whiskey. I say, Instagram is the problem, but oh, YouTube, that’s cool.

I’ll just use that one.

The Marginal Benefit Analysis

I was an Economics major in college. And after I graduated, I spent a year studying the ins-and-outs of a field called Behavioral Economics — which essentially fuses our understanding of psychology with economics. It is, in many senses, the true study of decision making and human behavior in a modern world.

One of the key ideas presented in Microeconomics 101 is the idea of making decisions “on the margin” which essentially just means — making this decision, right now, based on this set of circumstances.

Does this decision provide a benefit right now?

When we talk, however, about a marginal benefit in a general context — it’s as if to say — something gives us a tiny bit of fortitude, joy, money, or whatever else we are after.

Social media is both a manifestation and reinforcement of the marginal benefit model. It feeds the “instant gratification” we seek and compounds our issues with self-control.

It is because it does cede a marginal benefit and that it’s a problem.

If I can get a small dopamine shot to the brain now, why would I put this off in hopes of a larger, more difficult to attain shot later? Why would I play a video game that’s hard to beat? Why not just scroll through Facebook?

Social media itself, it would seem, is something that provides a very small marginal benefit to my life on a day-to-day basis. That is, scrolling through Instagram, giving away hearts, and making comments here and there, doesn’t give me all that much joy. In fact, it distracts me. It’s a procrastination technique. It’s an avoidance tool.

It is the antidote to my long-term goals.

But yet, I keep coming back to it for a few reasons:

  1. Just under three years ago, my house burned down. Our community raised over $100K all through social media.

  2. In the past, I have started and shared campaigns that have raised quite a bunch of money for different causes and individuals.

  3. I want to know when people are going through tough times, so I can reach out and offer support as many have for me. I care.

  4. I write a lot. I want to be a writer. In the modern age, social media accounts seem to be a necessary evil for someone trying to build a lucrative career in the craft.

The Opportunity Costs

Every time you choose to do one thing with your time or money, you are in some sense, choosing not to do a whole host of other things. This is what economists call an opportunity cost — the measurement of what you’ve given up in order to make a given choice.

In choosing where to go to dinner, you may only have a handful of options — the local pizza shop, the fancier restaurant an hour away, or your friend’s place. Your decision may take into consideration factors such as projected taste satisfaction, any particular hankering you’re experiencing, the amount of time you’ll spend, the amount of money you’ll drop, your date’s interests, etc.

But in a more macro sense, when it comes to how we spend our time, there are limitless options. And therefore, the opportunity costs are far reaching.

This is both inspiring and paralyzing. Inspiring because you can do anything, paralyzing because you need to actually make a choice.

When we don’t know what we want and why we want it, we search for fillers. Fillers like watching sports or scrolling through Twitter. We search for things that make us feel alive without really needing to live.

Now, there’s no shame in sitting down to watch your favorite NFL team. In my mind, it’s a good use of a Sunday actually — because I can spend quality time with people I love, relax a little bit, get inspired by athletic performance, etc.

But nevertheless, my weekly football routine can quickly turn into escapism — obsessing over Fantasy leagues, stats, and commentary that have nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with what I care about. [This could be a different case for you; I respect that.]

If something — such as a social media habit — is out of line with my particular life philosophy, I see it as my duty to question it.

My life philosophy is simple:

Create and connect.

It would seem, at first glance anyways, that social media might actually feed this philosophy, but does it? Does is grant more than it takes or vice versa?

If you believe as I do that time can’t be recaptured, then every minute spent on social media is a minute you aren’t spending on something else.

So, what is the cost of this habit for you and for us collectively? What are you missing out on? What could I be doing otherwise? What might be a better use of our time?

Here are some thoughts:

Deliberate Practice

Want to get good at something? Want to change the world? Want to be a better entrepreneur, writer, data analyst, parent, spouse, or friend? You need to practice. Or as psychologist Anders Ericsson claimed, you need to make time for “deliberate practice” — that is focused time and attention directed at some end.

For a shortstop in baseball, it may be fielding thousands of ground balls in a given week.

For a fin-tech founder, it might be studying the ins and outs of the blockchain technology — reading everything she can get her hands on.

For a writer, it may be studying the work of the greats or editing past work, line by line.

What could you do if you took the time you spent on social media and invested it in becoming better at something that interests you? What might that make you feel — at a deep level?

Working towards becoming the best version of yourself, and accomplishing things along the way, is likely to fulfill you more than 10,000 hours spent scrolling.

Meaningful Connection

In a given day, I’m by myself a lot. I spend most of my time reading, thinking, and writing because, well, I write for a living.

And so, during the work week, it’s easy to use the type of connection I experience on social media as a replacement for face-to-face, or even voice-to-voice, connection.

I put the SOLO in solopreneur some weeks, using social media as my crutch. But the reality is: it never suffices. I can never squeeze quite enough love, joy, and connection out of it. It seems to steal more than it gives.

Whether you have greater extroverted or introverted tendencies, whether you work in an office or from home, you, like every other human being on planet earth, are a social animal.

Interaction through social media lowers the costs of being social. It’s easier to put yourself out there via DM. It’s easier to “know” people than to knowpeople. And plus, you can’t beat telling someone you love them without having to leave your home, right?

Wrong.

But because there’s less risk to your ego, there’s less potential reward for your soul. There is nothing like giving/receiving a hard hug, having a deep heart-to-heart, or collaborating with someone to solve a real-life problem.

Social media is to life, what news reports are to truth. The good stuff, the real stuff happens beyond. For every minute you spend scrolling that could be a minute you spend loving on a stranger, a sibling, or a loved one.

Focused Attention

It’s not just the time you lose, it’s the focus you lose, too.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of writing an email to your boss to request a raise. I think we can all admit, unless you’re an expert negotiator, that this takes a bit of energy, both cognitive and emotional. You want to make sure you phrase the question in the right way, highlighting your value to the firm, but not coming off overly boastful.

As it gets harder, your hand automatically reaches for your phone. You open up Snapchat and boom. You’re sucked in. It’s riveting watching Suzie rock climb.

Yet, by the end of 15 minutes, you are no closer to breaking through to the right verbiage for your email. Not only did you lose those 15 minutes of time, but you’re also now distracted.

You have to work back from that distraction and recapture your own attention now. But, but, but your phone will give you dopamine now! So grab it — maybe someone new posted a story!!

The more often you give in to this kind of thing, which even I am compelled to do right now in writing this sentence, the smaller your attention span gets.

The smaller your attention span gets, the less you can get done in a particular window of time. The less you can get done in a particular window, compounded, the less you can get done ever. Period.

And so, your use of time becomes like a yo-yo. Up and down. This way and that way. You’re jerking yourself around. Flipping between things, never finishing anything, and never reaching your potential.

Mush Brain

Rolling over and checking your phone is like relying on coffee to wake up. Like a shot of espresso, your brain begins requiring a shot of blue light straight to the face. You can’t wake up without it. Or if you do, you’re lost. You seek those transient images to distract you from the fact that your life is well — mostly mundane, dull, and meaningless.

Why not just create meaning in your life?

Because it’s harder?

You aren’t that weak.

Social media primes us — through use of language, image, and short videos — to believe the world is a certain way. We think other people have cooler lives.We think the world is about to end. Soon, we begin to process the world through a negative or meme-sized joke lens.

But what good does that really do for you or anyone else around you? Does that make you a better friend or citizen?

Emotion

If we know, which we do, that comparing ourselves to others leads to depression, then why on earth would we engage with tools that force comparison upon us?

It’s confusing, right?

The truth is: we feel connected at some level, to the lives of the people around us, and to celebrities, when we see their filtered photos — despite “knowing” they aren’t real.

This fictional reality we live in isn’t bad in itself, it’s our perception of it based on the neurotransmitter spikes and biases of the brain we experience. We are so much less in control than we can possibly imagine.

This environment that we’ve created online is, at a very deep level, reshaping the way we see and experience the world. Whether we know it or not, we are subconsciously swiping right and left when we meet people. We are searching for Instagram worthy snapshots. We are vying for social approval at every turn.

The Punch Line

Social media companies are investing billions upon billions of dollars in research and development. Their primary purpose is not to “connect the world” as they’ve claimed. Their primary purpose, as publicly traded companies, is to make their shareholders money.

The way they’ve chosen to do that is not by charging users, it’s by charging advertisers. And the service, or currency rather, that they offer in return to these advertisers is:

your attention.

Thus, the only way to keep attracting advertisers, and keep growing profits is to find a way to capture more of your attention.

This is the incentive for changes in Facebook’s algorithm this year. While this incentive may line up with what’s good for you, as the user, don’t be fooled into believing that you are the primary customer… because you are not.

How you decide to spend your time — in or out of the virtual world — is a spiritual consideration.

We live in a world with complex problems, complex problems that must be solved. Complex problems like rampant drug use, depression, and suicide. Like deforestation and ozone depletion. Like sexism, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Like poverty and illiteracy. Like a growing disparity of wealth.

And so my friend, it is time to ask yourself — is my time well spent? And can I leverage these tools, rather than having my attention leveraged against me, to make sure that it is?

The world will only become better, not when we look up from our phones necessarily, but when we begin to use this force for good.

Thanks for reading! :)

If you like to read (and listen to podcasts), which you must since you’re at the bottom of this long thing, sign up HERE to receive my once-per-month email with the best books & pods I’ve dug up.

Kate Ward