The Social Media Effect: Our brains on social media

How often have you half-consciously opened Facebook just to scroll mindlessly through your feed? How often do you pick up your phone first thing in the morning or last thing at night, and end up losing more time than planned, following the rabbit trail of text exchanges or notifications, coming out the other side feeling depleted and a bit unfulfilled?

It seems fair to say that at this point, late in 2016, social media is not only pervasive, it is influential and often core to our daily routines. (Even if it is not, I imagine a decision to disengage requires maintenance and continual re-commitment to avoid such ubiquitous platforms.) Internet access is now considered a utility like electricity and water, and continuous connectivity means that we are accessing external information at an unprecedented rate, for longer hours, in places where we used to be able to rely on internal personal resources – like our bedrooms, or while in the woods, or out to dinner with friends.

The general consensus seems to be that our pull toward online connectivity means that we are somehow weak of character. Facebook is likened to a drug or escapist tactic in its difficulty to resist. In fact, research shows that online interaction creates a dopamine and oxytocin response in our brains – a little hit of the same hormones that show up when we eat sugar, or have sex, or yep, do drugs. So there’s a reason we crave it, and a reason we have a tendency to let it pervade our lives.

And yet, like any behavior our brain regulates and rewards, the core motivation doesn’t stem from weakness, it stems from our brain reminding us to keep doing things that are good for our survival. Food. Sex. Social interaction. These are things we require to stay alive. We are social creatures – we do not survive in a vacuum without the support of others. It makes sense that a tool for connectedness lights up the pleasure centers just like eating does.

Like drugs, though, we’re beginning to understand that “social” media is not quite as social as we’d like it to be. Like refined sugar or heroin, we’ve taken a naturally occurring product and streamlined it to be far more effective than what our brain evolved to expect. We’ve used our human brains to create a tool that tricks itself into thinking we’re getting exactly what we need in large quantities, when in fact we are just pressing the button that says “a good thing is here!” without actually providing the good thing we require for survival. With sugar, the brain thinks the body is being nourished. With heroin, the brain thinks all threats to safety have been eliminated. With Facebook, the brain thinks that it is engaging in the social connectedness of a community of supporters that will contribute to our survival.

Think about an in-person social interaction. It is complex and maybe a little bit stressful. There are literally thousands of verbal and non-verbal cues you are reading from your partner in connection, and thousands that you are providing to them simultaneously. Posture, tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression, hand gestures, proximity, self-disclosure, empathy, etc. And like online interaction, the dopamine reward system is in full swing: when interpersonal resonance happens and you feel supported or connected, Bing! Dopamine (and a bunch of other rewarding neurotransmitters too). The frequency and quantity of hormones in this in-person interaction is aligned with the ways our brain evolved. It helps encourage us toward connection.

With Facebook, or any social media platform really, we don’t have thousands of cues regarding interaction. We get just a few – verbal content, maybe some emojis, maybe some temporal or locational cues. This means that we are often guessing about the vast amounts of the potential data we could be collecting, and that we reach a decision about connectedness FAST. Immediately. And as you scroll down your feed, decision after decision is made. Bing! Bing! Bing!

If the lack of environmental cues causes you to tend toward anxiety, that decision is made quickly too, and adrenaline surges as your brain assesses a potential interpersonal threat. Bing! Bing! Bing! Adrenaline! Dopamine! Excitement! Reward! No wonder we’re all sucked in so quickly. It’s not your fault. You are not weak. You are just a human seeking connection and your brain believes you have found a very efficient venue for it.

And in some ways, you have. Social media promotes connectivity in remarkable bite-sized pieces that were never possible before. We watch Americans as they are killed by police – no filter of journalistic opinion or delay necessary. We reach out to hundreds of friends and family simultaneously to let them know we are engaged or on vacation or expecting a kid. Our lives have accelerated as our communication accelerates. But as with any increase in production speed, something is lost – and in this case, it is the thousands of additional opportunities for connectedness we usually receive in-person that are lost. Our brains are capable of the immense calculation of in-person interaction, which some researchers say is the most complicated thing our brains do, and is actually what has pushed human neurological evolution to the point it has reached today. When they get just a few tiny data points from an online interactions, you experience the equivalent of a sugar rush and then crash, only instead of being left with a physiological hunger, you are left with a craving for more nourishing and substantial connectedness.

It is at this juncture of craving connectedness that we have a choice. We can turn to our readily available quick fix – an efficient online interaction – which often might be enough to hold us over. At some point, though, we’re going to need to address the core depletion, and turn toward another human. In real life.