It’s right to think that we are our own person, right? That we choose our thoughts, our decisions and our life? Maybe how we think and who we are isn’t a clear cut as that.
Tell me the company you keep and I’ll tell you who you are.– Miguel De Cervantes, poet and author from late 1500’s
For much of the last few hundred years our influences have come from family and a close knit town or village. If you were educated that influence extended to your close circle that you exchanged handwritten correspondence with. Much like it was in Cervantes’ time.
Today, our influences are family, friends, colleagues, community groups, connections on social media, the influencers and all the commentators and forums on other media channels. That’s all in a day!
If we’re not conscious of the opinions and ideas being invited into our thinking, and the way that influences like social media rewires our brains, we should start to consider how many of those thoughts and actions are our own.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal with the 2016 US election put the spotlight on how social media can influence our emotions and mould our behaviour to influence our actions. It gave us an insight into just how easily we can be influenced, whether relating to awareness of issues, political persuasion or buying behaviours.
Each social media profile online can predict the profile’s level of influence based on number of connections and time spent on each platform. With news feeds being curated by algorithms, it’s akin to having a really extroverted friend calling you every day. With this friend now paying you so much attention, there’s a high chance you’ll start building a closer bond regardless of whether it’s a positive relationship or not.
Another element of the media fire hose is the sheer volume we consume. Research has shown that constant input from screen content directly impacts the functioning and structure of the brain. If we overdose on content input, it not only influences what we think but how our brain functions and processes information. Research has also found constant exposure to media content effects our ability to develop empathy and compassion for others.
Be aware that for any content platform to be relevant and valuable it needs active users, repeatedly returning to the platform. Constantly updated news feed, likes and comments gives us a dopamine injection, feeding our reward system. I have watched how this stickiness starts with children, being lured back to a game a number of times a day, to hatch an egg or battle a pokemon or “unlock” the next level.
The world of influence and constant content can be a challenge for us all, but is more positive for those with high emotional intelligence and critical thinking. Emotional intelligence is the understanding of self, understanding of others and then the interaction of the two. If the majority of our interactions or experiences are impacted by the structure of our brains, and influence of social media algorithms, then our ability to develop close relationships, understand behaviour and respond in a positive way, will be an antidote to the “influencers” trying to get our attention.
Doing a digital detox is a good start, but like most detoxes we largely go back to our old habits. The long term key is thinking more critically about how much we consume and who we look to for education, opinion and entertainment. This way we can more consciously shape our world view. There is a lot of competition for your eyeballs, so be mindful where you use them.