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“Adapting like an organism” – social media addiction and data marketing’s impacts on mental health

Technology & Data

“Adapting like an organism” – social media addiction and data marketing’s impacts on mental health


A large part of marketing is understanding the psychology of the purchase. Fiona Killackey speaks with Dr Damian Cotchett, a consumer and organisational psychologist at Changing Behaviours, about the impact data marketing may have on mental health.

This article originally appeared in The Trust Issue, our June/July 2018 issue of Marketing magazine.


Fiona Killackey: How much of your clients’ lives play out online?

Dr Damian Cotchett: A tremendous amount plays out through a range of channels. For adults, the first thing that so many people do when they wake is look at their devices. It has become habitual and automatic. Very quickly (within a generation) the behaviour of the majority has been dominated by online information, materials and entertainment. It is this last category that has the biggest impact on humans. People have become less self-determining, allowing online/social channels to influence – and at times dictate – their lifestyle and decisions. Their reference point is back to this mega-system.


Do you believe the pressure placed on children and young people today, through digital advertising and targeted campaigns online is any different to magazine or TV adverts shown in the 1980s and ’90s?

The same principles apply now as they did in the 1980s and ’90s, but the amount of information in the form of feedback, participation and buying has exploded the individual’s mind. This has resulted in many individuals tailoring who can see their profile and what they want to share with others. Advertisers got smart through the internet and apps, so that those who don’t reduce the footprint of their online connectivity will be targeted relentlessly with new shopping or data management. It is so subtle that consumers may not even know they are being influenced.

Related: Data and the tipping point of trust – months after the Facebook fallout »


Some say social media will be the same as smoking was in the 1960s; we won’t understand the true damage until it’s too late. What are your thoughts on this in relation to digital targeting of social content and mental health?

I don’t see the comparison quite like this. Smoking was an example of how people chose to adopt a product. The same was with alcohol and driving, leading to greater use of seat belts and alcohol reduction rules when driving. Social media is far more embedded in people’s lives that it is itself morphing around individuals’ behaviour and, as a result, it is adapting like an organism. This becomes far more powerful and influential than a product, as it is evolving in real-time and playing a far more impactful role. It is so subtle that people don’t realise how they have become so obsessed with social media devices and data.


What would you like to see happen in relation to policies or rules around data collected by brands, to ensure that society is as mentally healthy as possible?

Trust Cover 200This is one of the biggest challenges for our societies. The best way to ensure a mentally healthy society is to encourage people to be self-managing. The definers of the new world work on the basis that everyone is a clear decision-maker and knows how to self-manage and self-control. For many this is an accurate assessment and they can manage their lifestyle and time. Increasingly, for a growing number in our societies, this is not the case and the impact of marketing and product will be evident in the amount time spent on social media and the perception that everything on social media is true. We should be focusing on stronger self-management and the ability to critique healthy from unhealthy sites and bloggers, even if they are the most popular.


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Image copyright:  Sajjad Zabihi


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