Selfie-Aspiration: Social Engineering Is Changing our Biology and our Norms and Values

Nowhere in the terms of service for any device or app we use did we agree to be digital guinea pigs. Yet every day, we share more and more of our lives online and consume more and more of the lives of people we follow. This is by design. Our attention was hacked and monetized without thoughtful regard to the psychological, emotional, and physical impacts on our health and wellness. This isn’t sustainable. But it’s also the new normal. We can’t wait for standards and ethics to catch up to tech leaders. Instead, we need to invest in our digital well-being to balance, grow, and thrive as we continue to become one with tech.

The rise and fall of Likes

Instagram recently announced that it’s experimenting with the removal of “Likes” for what it cites as mental health reasons. “Likes” have been linked to unproductive and even harmful behaviors that rewire our brains to crave attention, rewards, and validation; stoke vanity and self-centeredness; and open the door to social comparisons, low self-esteem, negative body image, and more. Industry speculation also suggests that Instagram is also motivated to remove Likes for monetization reasons.

At face value, the move is commendable. Over the last decade, as social media became the new normal, a rise in depression and suicide has also dramatically spiked, especially among young adults.

Instagram’s move is also aimed at curbing the escalating monetary power of digital influencers on the platform. These are individuals who built engaged communities around their personal brands and have learned how to land lucrative endorsements with advertisers to feature products in paid posts. Depending on their online stature, influencers can earn hundreds to thousands and even millions per paid post. For instance, it’s reported that 21-year-old Kylie Jenner earns $1.27 million per sponsored post. Even though mental health reasons are a stated driver for the change, Instagram is also losing billions in advertising revenue. If advertisers spend money directly with influencers, they’re probably not investing in the platform directly or if so, it’s only a fraction. But, that’s another subject for another time.

The dark side of Likes

I’d like to revisit the notion of mental health, as the power of Likes on our lives deserves more attention than it’s getting. The reality is that social media continues to affect our physical, mental, and emotional health and wellness, and very little is being done about it. In fact, most of us don’t realize or care to learn what’s happening. The more time we spend on social media without healthy checks and balances though, the greater the effects.

Did you know the average teenage girl spends between 6-10 hours a day on social media? When asked, one teenager couldn’t answer why. “Whenever I got bored, I just opened Instagram. What am I doing!?” she exclaimed.

This is something that I’ve long studied and shared in my work.

As a digital analyst and anthropologist in Silicon Valley, I’ve had access to many of the entrepreneurs and investors going back to the days before social media was social media.

Here’s what I can say: the hype about intentionally hacking and manipulating the attention economy is very real. Our attention is a currency, and the more of it we give to any one platform, the more it can monetize. While our attention has always been a battleground, these design techniques, referred to as persuasive design, did much more than get us to use apps more. We’re encouraged to consume more content. We’re sharing more of our life than ever. We’re influenced by the activities and images of those we follow more than we realize. It’s rare when we’re fully in the moment. We don’t allow ourselves to observe or experience boredom. How we think, feel, and act in the real world only continues to evolve as a result of our online activities. And, this is all normal.

Social media, online gaming, and apps are real-time examples of worldwide social engineering. The goal of these apps is to push you outside of your existing norms and values. Again, while not new, the extent of how this is done and how we react is also changing our internal chemistry, rewiring our brains and sending us into uncharted biological and emotional territory.

No matter who you are, your IQ or EQ levels, if you use a smartphone and many popular apps, you, like me, are affected. Doing nothing makes things worse. But knowledge, purpose, and intentionality put our lives in alignment with tech in a more productive, happier, and creative direction.

Social Media Pills

Selfie-aspiration: losing our true selves online

Developers have figured out (and also stumbled upon) how to, for example, release dopamine, among several other chemicals, into your body based on specific triggers in everyday use. Those triggers are meant to pull you into the app until the app blurs the line between who you are in the real world vs. who you are online. More so, we risk losing ourselves by following and expressing a life influenced by our networks and not our individual aspirations. I call this “selfie-aspiration.” We become a semblance of who we want to be based on trends, tastes, and vanity, which then distorts our perception and robs us of time and critical thinking to assess our lives and our paths.

Chemically speaking, dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with motivation and reward. It triggers everyone, especially teens, to crave reward-based engagement and experiences. Then there’s oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins, among others. Every time we pick up our smartphone, we are microdosing. And, your body learns to crave these microdoses because they literally become addictive.

Likes, followers, and comments all encourage reward-seeking and also distracted, shallow behaviors. The irony is that research shows that viewers will place greater value on content that boasts greater likes. It’s quantity over quality! Popularity over authority!

These life hacks appeal to the nucleus accumbens in our brain, often referred to as the reward circuit. What matters though is that consuming much of the content we do today, research shows that what we perceive as happiness and engagement are actually leading to FOMO, inadequacy, unhappiness, loneliness, anxiety, and depression.

Selfie-actualization: sharing our best “fake” lives

Social media, in particular, Instagram, leads to comparisons between ourselves and others. Inadequacy isn’t far behind. Why? Because many tend to publish an idealized image of themselves or the moment they’re in (or faking to be in). I call this “selfie-actualization.” We “think” we are what we share.

When you see friends living their best lives, when you receive new notifications, when Likes and followers come and go, when you like and follow others, each action releases these chemicals in our bodies and brains, changing our biology. We grow to become dependent on them. We want more and more. Our biology thus continues to change.

The good news is that experts are starting to dedicate resources to understand the short- and long-term effects. In one such example, these socially-engineered chemical cocktails are already affecting the prefrontal cortex, the area associated with understanding, evaluation, and decision-making.  MRIs show that the more we use social media, the thinner our prefrontal cortex. Older generations lose depth and focus. Among teens, whose brains are still developing, impulse control and critical thinking are also greatly affected.

In addition to our emotions spiraling all over the place, our creativity, our intellect, and our capacity to learn and perform are also compromised.

Social Media Likes

We must reset our relationship with technology

As my friend and long-time startup adviser, Sarah Evans said recently, “We are the first generation to deal with tech overload. All of the mistakes involving our tech and our brains, families, and society are happening right now. We are the guinea pigs.”

It’s only going to get more extreme.

In a TV interview about hacking the attention economy, one ambitious startup founder shared what lies ahead. “We use AI and neuroscience to increase your usage…make apps more persuasive…it’s not an accident,” he proudly shared. “It’s a conscious design decision. We’re designing minds. The biggest tech companies in the world are always trying to figure out how to juice people.” Without awareness, self-control, and resolve, we don’t stand a fighting chance…because we don’t know who’s fighting us, who or what we’re fighting, nor the damage inflicted upon us.

This is why I was compelled to write Lifescale: How to Live a More Creative, Productive and Happy Life. I had to do something for me, and others like me.

Deleting apps and digital detoxes only go so far.

Meditation and exercise help, but they, too, only go so far.

We need a complete reset on life and what it means to be alive and to thrive in an era of extreme social engineering and distractions. We need a new generation of leaders. Leaders who can help not only ourselves, but also teachers, parents, mentors, and health and wellness professionals to rewire humanity productively and happily.

Today, there’s too little awareness and no real sense of urgency. More so, these new social norms don’t immediately reward bucking convention. There’s little moral foundation to stand on because these apps confuse the differences between who we really, who we portray online, and who we really want to be. We’re made to feel like we’re not good enough. We confuse filtered and #hashtagged self-expression with individuality and creativity. We mimic what’s popular more than we create or communicate originality. We learn to become entitled versus empowered and enlightened.

This is a time when we need to revisit our values and renew our sense of purpose to break the facade of social engineering and take control of our lives and future. I’m not purporting that we abandon tech. I advocate, instead, that we use it with greater motive and intentionality. It’s not just about getting back to where we were. It’s about embracing all of the benefits of our devices, apps, and connectedness to unlock new possibilities and opportunities.

There’s more out there for you beyond the false gods of attention and validation.

Once you realize what you stand for, what you value, and what happiness and success truly and uniquely mean to YOU. No amount of likes, followers, or endorsements will give you the present or future you desire or deserve.

In this era of the rise of exponential technologies like AI, it’s more important than ever to be part of the conversation about how they’re being applied. Question everything. Seek answers. Define your path. Learn, grow and live your best life in the moment. Be uniquely you. No one else can do that.


Brian Solis is Principal Analyst and Futurist at Altimeter, the digital analyst group at Prophet. Brian is also a world-renowned keynote speaker and an award-winning author of eight best-selling books. Through his research, Brian humanizes emergent trends and technology’s effects to help shape the future we want to live in. His current research explores digital transformation, innovation, experience design, culture 2.0, and the future of industries, trends, and behavior. Additionally, Brian studies the human side of what he calls “digital Darwinism,” to understand individuals, their behaviors, norms, and values, and their evolving emotions, mindsets, and rationale.