Let’s paint a picture. It’s a Sunday afternoon and a college student is relaxing in their dorm room. With no plans for the day, boredom sets in and whilst scrolling on their phone, the student comes across an old photo and decides to upload it to Instagram. Minutes pass and there are no likes. The student begins to feel agitated and wonders why.
When tiny virtual hearts start to pour out on the screen, the students mood instantly shifts and they’re overcome with a sudden euphoric feeling. As this behavior keeps repeating itself, this slowly turns into a cycle where the student becomes dependent on that social media validation just to feel content.
Many people are quick to blame this kind of social media addiction on weak willpower, when the truth is that it’s much more physiological.
What Causes This?
This addiction boils down to one substance and its hidden role in our lives; Dopamine. Also known as the feel-good chemical, Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward center known as the Mesolimbic Pathway. The reward center in humans is designed to ensure basic survival by allowing the brain to attach a positive feeling to a productive action. For example – eating food when starving or drinking water to quench thirst feels good and hence a correlation is made. Via the reward center, this ensures that the next time the person gets physiologically thirsty, the feeling of drinking will stimulate the reward center as well.
However, this evolutionary system which was designed to ensure survival can, unfortunately, be very easily abused. Since Dopamine is vital for achieving satisfaction, it could be easily hijacked by the abuse of drugs like Methamphetamines, Cocaine and countless others.
Scientific experiments dating back to the 1950s have long tested Dopamine and its effects on the human body. Initially thought to be an important chemical in physical movement, the understanding changed when Professor Wolfram Schultz from The University of Cambridge used lab rats to test the relationship between pleasurable sensations and Dopamine.
The results of this experiment mostly concluded that Dopamine is in fact in some way responsible for most addictions. While hard drugs are heavily regulated throughout the modern world, social media, remains completely unregulated and free to access so long as there is an internet connection.
With over 2.27 billion active users, Facebook remains the most used social media network in the world. Another popular social media network owned by the same company is Instagram which has over 1 billion active users. In 2018 Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker openly admitted how the use of Facebook traps people and kills their productivity. Speaking at the Axios Event in Philadelphia he said: “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
On Facebook being developed, he added that the goal was:” How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” It was this mindset that led to the creation of features such as the “like” button that would give users “a little dopamine hit” to encourage them to upload more content.
The People’s Take
Speaking to Sahil Thakur, a student at Amity University India who is also an ardent social media user, revealed that he uses every type of social media he could find; “I use every type of social media; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, you name it.”
When Sahil started using social media his main goal was to socialize with his friends. However, as time passed there was a shift in his priorities. Asking him if he would be ok if he stopped posting on social media, he replied: “If you were to snatch them away from me, you’d be snatching away my “social life.” This is just one example of how many students have learned to fuse their self images with virtual platforms.
Anoushka Pinto from The University of Westminster even considered these applications to be the main cause of her poor social mechanisms. When talking about socializing on platforms such as Facebook, she admitted; “I actually find it easier to talk to people online. Whenever I meet them in real life I have no idea what to say and I just feel awkward.” This shows how some avid social media users can even become dependent on social media not only to feel self satisfied but also to socialize.
However, not everyone shares this sentiment. Amy Orben a psychologist at Oxford University claims that the use of social media has nothing to do with addiction. In her 2017 article for the publication ‘The Magazine’, she argues that “Social media is nothing like drugs, despite all the horror stories.” Furthermore, Amy argued that there wasn’t sufficient scientific evidence to support this and that there is no precedent for addiction in this manner. When asked to speak with Porter Medium directly, Amy wasn’t available for comment.
What to do?
People from around the world have begun to acknowledge Social Media’s abuse potential. New York Times columnist David Brook wrote an article in 2017 in which he quotes “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops’.”
Activists such as Simon Sinek have given various lectures about the dangers of social media and how to use it in a healthy and moderated way.
Speaking with fellow motivational speaker Simon comments: “Alcohol isn’t bad, too much alcohol is bad. Gambling is fun, too much gambling is dangerous. Things like social media should be balanced and regulated. It is the only way we can ensure the mental health of the younger generations”.