Facebook is the new McDonald's


As a kid Sundays were my favorite. It wasn't the weekend morning cartoons, or the endless bike rides with friends. Sunday stood out for the $0.39 cent McDonald's cheeseburgers my dad and I would devour together. It was our weekly treat.

McDonald's owned the 80s and 90s. A perfect place for a child's birthday or a quick family dinner. It was acceptable and ubiquitous -- how Facebook and Instagram are today. A meal at McDonald's was fast and delicious. It was also unhealthy and addicting.

McDonald's created a product that was a perfect match for our palette. A salty, savory, and sweet harmony of sodium, saturated fat, and corn syrup. Every meal overwhelmed the senses and exploited our pleasure centers. Satisfaction on a tray at a price anyone could afford.

It took decades for us to realize the devastating impact McDonald's had on public health: childhood obesity, type-2 diabetes, and a societal addiction to processed food that we're still trying to shake. All this can be linked to cheap, delicious, unhealthy food-product for the masses.

Society eventually got smart to this impact and made Ronald and his gang clean up their act. When will we ask Facebook to do the same?

To sell us more products McDonald's exploited our evolutionary programming that favored highly caloric sweet and savory foods. I don't believe they did this for malevolent reasons, they simply wanted to make more money. In the search for ever increasing and sustainable profits their marketing and product development teams made decisions that created a dangerously addicting and unhealthy product.

In a similar vein, Facebook, social networks, and other digital products are actively exploiting our psychological vulnerabilities to grab as much of our attention as possible. Facebook is a carefully engineered product designed to make money off your attention, and addiction. Thousands of extremely bright engineers that graduated from the world's finest technical universities work endlessly to keep you on the Facebook app as long as possible.

In a 2016 earnings call, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed that on average a person spends 50 minutes every day1 on the Facebook platform. When you combine that with their public claim of 1.32 billion daily active users2, you get some eye-opening statistics: 123,668 years of human attention is spent on the Facebook platform each day. To put that in perspective, according to genetic and fossil evidence we evolved into anatomically modern humans between 100 - 200 thousand years ago.

I assume that some of that time is spent on fulfilling Facebook's altruistic-sounding mission "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together." Sure, there's some value in that. However I wonder how much of that time is actually spent just mindlessly clicking and consuming advertising.

At best, Facebook is a distraction from the things we actually need to do - work, study, and socialize. At worst Facebook undermines our capacity to self-regulate and is an attack on our free will. In both cases our public mental health is adversely affected.

In the past few years, a number of studies examined social media's effects on our brain. A study3 at UCLA’s Ahmanson–Lovelace Brain Mapping Center found that the neural regions active while gambling or eating chocolate also light up when using social networks. Every click is a dopamine snack. Facebook use has the potential to be as addictive and destructive as other activities we shun as a society.

Moreover, the potential to be addicted to Facebook, social media, and other digital products is greater than McDonald's could ever be. You have to physically visit a McDonald's location. With Facebook, all you have to do is take out your phone or open a browser tab.

I predict that society will eventually perceive Facebook in the same way we look at McDonald's today. It might take a few years or decades but we will eventually realize the negative public and mental health impact Facebook has outweighs its claimed value.

As a society we need to require Facebook to take responsibility for its addicting and exploitative business practices.

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