With Facebook enduring a wave of public criticism for its cavalier approach to user privacy, itâ€™s becoming more apparent how important social media has become. I suspect it will be many years before the true scale and scope of the changes are appreciated, and even then much will never be fully understood. The era when humans interacted mainly by gathering in physical space, or maintained personal networks through one-to-one connections, has drawn to a close, and the next generation wonâ€™t even really understand what that era was like. Social media has changed the meaning of human life itself.
It has also made a lot of money and investors have given multibillion-dollar market valuations to companies like Facebook, Snap and Twitter.
Thereâ€™s even an argument that the true economic value created by these companies is much greater than their profits - or, in Snapâ€™s case, their potential future profits - suggest. For the most part, the services are free to use. But given how much time people spend using them, itâ€™s probably true that they would be willing to pay a lot to keep being able to enjoy social media. In economics, this is known as consumer surplus - the amount of value that consumers get without having to pay for it.
But many of us who lived through the shift from Internet 1.0 to the new age of social media canâ€™t help but feel a nagging worry. In addition to concerns about privacy, electoral influence and online abuse, social media seems like it has many of the qualities of an addictive drug.
Research isnâ€™t conclusive on whether social-media addiction is real. But it certainly has some negative side effects that loosely resemble the downsides of recreational drugs. In 2011, psychologists Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths wrote a paper that found:
â€śNegative correlates of [social media] usage include the decrease in real life social community participation and academic achievement, as well as relationship problems, each of which may be indicative of potential addiction.â€ť
Meanwhile, a number of more recent studies find similarities between social-media use and addictive behavior.
And experiments found that smartphone deprivation induced anxiety among young people, a phenomenon that certainly has parallels to drug withdrawal.
That certainly doesnâ€™t mean that everyone who uses social media is a junkie.
Evidence shows that moderate usage is not harmful. That fits with my own experience - I find that I derive great enjoyment from Facebook, which I use in moderation, but am often made anxious and irritable by Twitter, which I use much more.
Itâ€™s the heaviest users who may be in the most danger - a recent survey found that a quarter of Americans are online â€śalmost constantly.â€ť And social-media use is going up relentlessly worldwide.
Whereas once the internet offered an escape from the real world, now the real world is a much-needed escape from the internet.
Now, itâ€™s important to emphasize that just because a product harms some people doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s bad for society overall.
Nor are addictive drugs always bad. Many Americans consume caffeine, often in large amounts every day. Some economists have suggested that drug addiction is a rational choice, with users choosing to pay the price for pleasure.
Other economists, however, theorize that addiction can result from short-sightedness. If people are more oriented toward the short term than they realize, they may incorrectly believe that theyâ€™ll be able to exert self-control and stop using an addictive substance in the future.
When the addiction becomes too strong to quit, they may find themselves trapped in a situation they never would have chosen had they known what they were getting into. This interpretation of addiction seems especially likely, given the fact that people who havenâ€™t been addicted donâ€™t know what itâ€™s like - I can tell myself that Iâ€™d be able to quit cigarettes easily, but thereâ€™s no way to be sure until itâ€™s too late.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist.