Kees Verhoeven en Sander Schimmelpenninck tijdens het symposium The Future of the Mind
Kees Verhoeven en Sander Schimmelpenninck tijdens het symposium The Future of the Mind

Sander Schimmelpenninck: ‘Social media are eroding our democracy’

Politicians getting into each other's hair online, inflated antagonisms between political parties, and a parliament that barely receives a decision taken anymore. Social media negatively influence the political process and that awareness is insufficiently present, argues journalist Sander Schimmelpenninck and entrepreneur and former MP on behalf of D66 Kees Verhoeven. ‘Social media do not just magnify sentiments, they create them.’

Sander Schimmelpenninck and Kees Verhoeven spoke at the symposium The Future of the Mind, organised by Radboud Healthy Brain. The symposium brought experts together to explore the impact of digital technology on our well-being. 

In secondary schools, smartphone bans are now commonplace and, if it is up to former politician Verhoeven, a ban in the Lower House will soon follow. ‘Twitter used to be a cozy place, but a change took place around 2016, with the Ukraine referendum.’ By now, slander, lies, and hate speech are the order of the day there, Schimmelpenninck and Verhoeven note.

In the TV series Sander versus the Socials (2023), Schimmelpenninck examined the impact of social media on polarization, threats, and trust in democratic institutions. One of his conclusions is that social media threatens democracy in several ways. ‘But we are not sufficiently aware of this,’ Schimmelpenninck argues. ‘More and more people are leaving politics because of the hatred they receive, while many talented young people do not even embark on a political career for the same reason.’ At the same time, politicians are part of the problem because of their online behavior. Schimmelpenninck: ‘MPs are constantly on their phones during debates. They don't get to decide anymore.’ 

New stupidity

According to Schimmelpenninck, our digital behavior creates a new form of stupidity. ‘A kind of stupidity where we act against our best interests, because essentially we are just addicted to our smartphone.’ This stupidity, incidentally, is independent of intelligence, Schimmelpenninck stresses. ‘Many intelligent people behave very stupidly online.’

That smartphone use also affects our brain should be obvious. Your reflex brain is triggered if you are constantly scrolling on your phone. At the same time, it blocks your thinking brain, which needs uninterrupted attention to perform tasks optimally You thus get distracted more quickly and are less able to focus. ‘Moreover,’ Schimmelpenninck told the symposium, ‘you can also spend all that time on social media doing things that stimulate your brain positively. Reading a book, for example.’ Verhoeven adds: ‘We have less inner peace, we are afraid of having nothing to do for a while.’

Moderation and detoxing

In what direction should we look for solutions? Verhoeven: ‘A first step is putting your phone away more often and getting off social media, although this is easier said than done. ‘Especially for young professionals who sometimes need social media to present themselves.’ To counter online hatred and threats, Schimmelpenninck advocates better moderation on social media. ‘Offline we have clear rules limiting freedom of expression, but online those rules do not seem to apply. As Europe, let's look at how we can design our digital village squares to benefit the collective.’

Healthy Brain

Radboud University is known worldwide for its excellence in fundamental research on brain, cognition and behaviour. To generate societal impact based on the scientific excellence in this domain, Radboud University has launched the Healthy Brain initiative. Multiple societal issues and problems could benefit from the input of our science. We will not do this in isolation. Collaboration between different disciplines and co-creation of societal impact with relevant stakeholders and problem owners are key.  Healthy Brain organises events and meetings with policymakers, politicians, journalists, grant providers, and other relevant stakeholders such as patient organisations, companies and NGOs, to identify relevant contributions our researchers can make, under the Radboud-wide slogan 'You have a part to play'.

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Healthy Brain
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Behaviour, Brain, Health & Healthcare