Is Social Media Your Porn?

by Paul Wilson

 

Note: My wife was rather concerned when I showed her the title of this post. I put her at ease by sharing that this article does not focus on anything that would make her, my mother, or the Pope’s grandmother feel uncomfortable.

At the end of this post is an updated video from an older video that has been circulating, in one form or another, around YouTube for the past several years. If you go to the 37th second of the video you will see the statement, “Social Media has overtaken pornography as the #1 activity on the web.” This statement was provided in the original video (though, with a little variation in wording), but for some reason the importance of it didn’t catch my attention until now.

I decided to do some digging on the validity of this statement and found that the source comes from a September 16, 2008 Reuters article titled, “Porn passed over as Web users become social.” The article shows a study done by Bill Tancer, the general manager of global research at Hitwise (a well respected web tracking company). Tancer analyzed information from over 10 million web users to conclude that indeed the normal Internet user is choosing social media over online pornography.

An interesting quote from the article states:

“Tancer. . . said one of the major shifts in Internet use in the past decade had been the fall off in interest in pornography or adult entertainment sites. He said surfing for porn had dropped to about 10 percent of searches from 20 percent a decade ago, and the hottest Internet searches now are for social networking sites. ‘As social networking traffic has increased, visits to porn sites have decreased,” said Tancer, indicated that the 18-24 year old age group particularly was searching less for porn. ‘My theory is that young users spend so much time on social networks that they don’t have time to look at adult sites.'”

Tancer’s theory of people turning their attention away from adult sites to social media due to lack of time is probable, but in my mind it is not the complete answer. In order for social media to steal people’s time and attention from the ever invasive industry of pornography I think that there must be deeper issues at play.

I belong to the field of thought that viewing pornography leads to addictive behavior. There are many who do not agree with me, but I think we can all agree that pornography has a strong and loyal following. So, to have social media surpass the Internet porn industry is definitely a significant milestone and something to analyze.

I am going to make a rather large assumption here, which is: long term social media engagement leads to addictive behavior. I am not a scientist, and therefore do not state this as a conclusive fact. However, I recall from my college days learning about operant conditioning, an aspect of psychology, which supports my premise of social media being addictive.

The quick Wikipedia definition of operant conditioning is:

“. . . a form of psychological learning where an individual modifies the occurrence and form of its own behavior due to the association of the behavior with a stimulus.”

In basic terms, this means our behavior is shaped by consequences, or more accurately, receiving rewards and punishments for our actions. The notion that we can be influenced by rewards and punishments isn’t new, but what is fascinating is how well it ties into our online behavior.

Studies on operant conditioning show that consistently rewarding someone is not the best method of teaching them to do something. Instead, weaving in inconsistency, with occasionally rewarding at random intervals, has proven the most effective when trying to modify a behavior.

Research with animals, who were trained in this manner, proved to work harder for their rewards than those animals who were not. What is more exceptional is that these same subjects would also take longer in abandoning their efforts after the reward for the specific behavior had been removed.

There is some interesting insight found in this research. Even though the rewards would stop, the animal had become conditioned to perform the desired behavior even without a reward. The animal held to the thought of a “next time,” which in their mind created a circumstance that might provide a reward. For the animal, there truly never was definitive evidence that his or her rewards had completely stopped.

Not only does the research of operant conditioning work on animals, but it is a great tool in snaring humans to continually behave in a specific manner. Operant conditioning is the type of process which creates automatic behaviors, and it is from these behaviors that certain actions persist even when we consciously focus against them.

Think of email. The action: checking our email. The reward: receiving an email. The usual outcome: we don’t receive an email. However, we continually check. Checking our email is a behavior which has a random interval reward. The simple fact that we never know which time produces a reward reinforces checking our email all the time. This is the case, even if insistently checking our email rarely produces the reward.

Social media in my mind is not much different. We engage in Facebook or Google+ because there is a reward, whether it is building our empire of friends, digitally connecting with others, or finding information deemed as interesting. No matter what it may be, most of the time these rewards are random and come at intervals that we do not control.

We become conditioned to plug into our social matrix and seek for the stimulus that feeds our addictive behavior. We want to know what is going on in people’s lives, not because we are interested (if so, we could just pick up our cell phones and call them), but rather because we are given a reward when we find new updates concerning these people.

Social networks provide an unimaginable amount of information, which continually flows into our consciousness. This further feeds the fire of rapid and random rewards. Unlike email, where our rewards are spaced over a long period of time, social network rewards come at a much quicker and at a much more random speed.

This fact of speed and randomness in of itself requires an individual to engage more with the social network so not to “miss out” on the desired rewards. Therefore, the conditioning of individuals continually checking in and engaging is a much stronger pull than other operant conditioning (and lets not even discuss the video game addiction that is so cleverly tied into the operant conditioning of social networks).

I do believe people become addicted to pornography differently. The sexual allure of pornography is more powerful than the interactive allure of social media in my mind (and I would postulate that a porn addiction is more difficult to overcome than a social addiction).

However, it is more culturally acceptable for a 13 year old to engage with Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube than it is for him or her to interact online with the adult industry. It is this simple fact that social networks can grab individuals earlier on and create a conditioning that is addictive.

Once this has happened, only then do I agree with Bill Tancer about people having less time to look at porn. People have less time because they are too entrenched in the operant conditioning of social media.

Is this a good thing? I definitely think being addicted to social media is better than being addicted to the trash peddled by the adult industry. Yet, an addiction to anything steals the precious moments of life, and no matter what we may be addicted to relinquishing our time to frivolous intangible rewards can never be a good thing! ~Paul W.

The video that spurred the inspiration for this post.

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