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Fight or Flight: The Social Media Drug

The phrase Social Media drug is one that is used all too often to describe the addiction behind the screen. The thing is it is something we have become accustomed to and often ignore now but the addiction behind Social Media services is both real and intentionally baked in. So we asked Sarah Hyde to investigate.

You scroll through your Facebook timeline, and there’s nothing to see. You put your phone back in your pocket.  Suddenly, before you’ve even noticed, your phone is back in your hand, and you’re looking at Bradley’s conspiracy theory status, Hamish’s engagement party pictures, and Aunty Alice’s all caps “how are you and the family?” comments. Again.

In 2017  former Facebook Vice President Sean Parker told us what we already knew  – that Facebook was addictive.  More importantly, however, he went on to tell us that one of the reasons that Facebook is so addictive, is because it was designed that way.  When setting up the social media giant, Facebook engineers were working to answer one big question:

‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’

The answer to that question, they found, lies past the bright blue logo, the likes and the comments.  It’s found in our brain, and it’s called Dopamine  – everybody wants some, everybody wants some more.

Dopamine is often referred to as the ‘pleasure hormone’.  The brain releases dopamine when we eat good food, have sex, exercise  – in short, our brain is rewarding us for doing the things that help keep us alive.  Dopamine works as a motivator, encouraging us to keep engaging in the behaviours that are absolutely necessary.  For example, in rats, having contact with their kittens (that’s not a mistake either, baby rats are called kittens!) was found to release more Dopamine than taking cocaine1.  Evolution, hard at work!

Dopamine is also released when we have a successful social interaction.  This harks back to the days well before social media, where humans needed to interact with others, positively, to get ahead in the world.   To survive, we need to work with others, to have the sex, to get to share the food, and to get to the safety that comes with being part of a group.  Humans managed to work our way to overpopulating and ruining the world not because of our strength or power.  To be honest, many of us aren’t even that smart.  But one of our advantages comes from the ability to work together in groups – we’re social.

And that brings us back to social media.   Your phone itself isn’t addictive.  Sure, it’s a nice shiny piece of metal and glass, but we aren’t Magpies.  At the end of the day your phone is just a tool.  It is, however, a tool that enables you to access other people, and to access, using the overworked phrase, your social networks.  It’s about interacting with other people. 

So when you post something, and people like it, your brain rewards you for that connection.  When you get comments on your page, or you see small emojis popping up, hearts and smiley faces, your brain lights up and says “yes, keep doing this!”.  And this extends to seeing the interactions between other people as well, so you don’t have to be posting all the time.  Watching the pictures, posts, and comments flow in from other people tells your brain that you’re connected with them, and that they’re a part of your social circle – picture your brain, quoting Borat here  – “great success!”.   In an evolutionary sense this would once have meant that you had more people around you to help you if you fell.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case any more.

What started off as a way for you to be surrounded by a genuine community regardless of physical location, has morphed into something much more.  Social media has worked to keep people engaged by mimicking this sense of community, and providing you with much more superficial connections, essentially tricking your brain into thinking that you’re putting in the hard work.  How many people on your social media platforms would actually come and get you if you had a flat tyre, or would have you for dinner when you’ve spent your living costs on an indoor treehouse for your cat, again?  Hopefully a few, and if you can say ‘nearly all’, then you’re lucky.  Regardless, the answer surely falls short of the amount of connections that your brain hopes and believes you’re creating when you’re trawling social media.  This doesn’t benefit you, but it sure does benefit the people making money from your use of social media.

Instagram.  The site bought by Facebook in 2012 now makes more money than its parent company.  Almost all of this revenue comes from advertising.  When ads first came to Instagram, it was predicted that the user base would drop off  – who wants to see ads in amongst their pictures?  But, just as Instagram users are still growing exponentially, so are the number of people actually clicking on advertisements.  And that’s thanks to the wiring of our brains, keeping us coming back for more.  

You post a picture, after some careful consideration.  Does it make you look good?  Yes.  Do you think it’s going to get you lots of likes – you damn well hope so!  But until you’ve put it out there, you don’t actually know what the response is going to be.  You have to be a little bit vulnerable, because there’s a chance that your picture will be a flop.   You think your picture is great, the best you’ve posted yet, but will your followers agree?  Will you get 10 likes, or 100? Professor Adam Alter, the author of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked”, states that it’s the “unpredictability of that process that makes it so addictive. If you knew that every time you posted something you’d get a 100 likes, it would become boring really fast.”  And he’s got a point.  Because while social media gives us that Dopamine hit, that alone isn’t always enough to keep you coming back for more.  Cocaine is addictive, but after the initial excitement most of your mates in London manage to curtail their use enough to hold down a steady job.  The pokies and slot machines are addictive too, but people are able to drag themselves away at some point, even if not soon enough or for long enough.

So social media keeps you engaged by bringing in other elements beside pleasure.  The very real, very human elements of unpredictability, fear, anticipation, and vulnerability.  These make the “reward” of a successful post all the more worthwhile.  In your brain’s eyes, anyway.  While social media companies provide the platform, when you boil down to it, they’re fairly simplistic.  Instagram isn’t that different from your grandmother’s photograph albums  – except you can show it to hundreds of people at once, and it’s easy for them to pretend that they care.  Facebook interactions aren’t that different to sitting in the classroom at school.  Except again, hundreds, thousands of people, who can react to you without expending too much effort.  And your brain, your body, tells you that’s good.

While it might be good, it’s not as good as we’ve led ourselves to believe over the last decade.  Big players in the tech industry have started to realise that too. Chamath Palihapitiya joined Facebook in 2007, and worked for four years as the Vice President of User Growth.  It was an exciting time, as Facebook took off on it’s journey to engage more people in a single site than had ever been seen before.  Facebook’s goal was to grow its user base and keep it (unlike Bebo, RIP).  All of the focus was on building the numbers, and not much on what the consequences of these actions might be.  Chamath left Facebook in 2007, and he’s spoken out scathingly since then.  Expressing concerns that users are being melded by social media sites, he issued a warning in 2017 that still rings true:   “Everybody else has to soul-search a little bit more about what you’re willing to do… now you gotta decide how much you’re willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence.”

I’m not here to preach the negative impacts or “dark side” of social media, because we’ve all heard those arguments before.  But it’s worth stopping for a moment, and really thinking about what we do on social media.  Is it really worthwhile?  What are we actually achieving from these interactions?  Is it something that translates positively in your offline life?  Is it something that would help you survive, as evolution intended?  Big questions, and I certainly don’t have all the answers.  But stopping to think is the first step on the road to finding them.


1 The Rewarding Nature of Social Interactions – 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2889690/

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