This week in the technology news-world, two high-ranking former Facebook employees sounded off on how social media is negatively impacting society. A little over a month ago, Sean Parker (creator of Napster and early investor in Facebook – played by Justin Timberlake in the Movie: “The Social Network”) expressed his regret over his role in creating social media, and more recently Chamath Palihapitiya (former Vice President of future growth, Facebook) took park in a discussion at Stanford and warned students that social media was programming their brains. Both Parker and Palihapitiya attributed the negative consequences of social media to “social media feedback validation” or “dopamine-driven feedback loops”. Now, I may be venturing a little outside the realm of technology and into the fields of biology and chemistry, but I feel that this topic is particularly interesting as it relates to the ethical responsibilities of the programmer/creator of these social media platforms.
Dopamine-driven feedback loops are nothing new to humans. Dopamine has always existed in our bodies, but was first discovered in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden. Dopamine is a chemical that is created in the brain and serves as a neurological transmitter along several pathways of the brain. One of the pathways controls reward-motivated behaviors. Dopamine used to be thought of as controlling the pleasure systems of the brain, allowing us to feel enjoyment from certain tasks. This enjoyment from dopamine rushes is what’s though to drive humans towards things like food, sex, and drugs…all of which can lead to addiction. It has more recently been suggested that Dopamine makes the brain want, seek, desire, and search. It has been the driving force that has made sure that we, as a species have survived as long as we have. Dopamine makes us want food, procreate, and drives curiosity. Dopamine can be simply described as the core ‘wanting system’ of the human brain. Once we satiate that want, we get a shot of pleasure thanks to the Opioid system. Unfortunately, the Dopamine system is much stronger than Opioids in the brain, and when it receives a reward for finding what it was seeking, it strengthens its desire to seek again. This is where we get to the Social Media aspect of this blog.
While this blog started off with comments about 2 former Facebook employees, all social media is guilty of driving these motivation-reward systems out of control. Posting something to social media, whether its Instagram, Facebook or twitter kicks off the ‘wanting’ system, placing us in anticipation of how that post will be received. Once we receive a like or comment on a post, the reward is given to our brains and we then turn around and seek some more. It has been shown that the actual anticipation of a reward creates even more activity in the brain than receiving one, and unpredictability is key to keeping the anticipation at it’s peak. Have you ever noticed how when opening up a social media application, it takes a few moments with *insert social media platform*’s logo pasted on the screen before you can see your feed? It’s not because your device is under-performing or the internet is slow, this is an intentional mechanic to create anticipation in the brain, thus creating a larger reward for when you finally see if you got the likes you sought. This is very similar to the effect of the spinning reels on a slot machine game. Because of the quick turnaround for feedback, the anticipation, and the unpredictability of public feedback, social media is the perfect storm of dopamine-driven feedback loops.
Now don’t fear, it’s never too late to break yourself out of a feedback loop. If you’d like to become more productive, more outwardly social, and less dependent on the artificial gratification of social media likes, just follow these easy steps:
1. Turn off notifications – Notifications can be extremely distracting, and waiting on them can trigger anticipation effects on the brain. Turning off your notifications will allow you to control how and when you receive that gratification effect.
2. Limit your time on Social Media – This seems simple enough, but the less time you spend on the platform the less you will depend on the stimulation it gives you. If you need to have a presence on social media, one longer session per day is better than several shorter sessions.
3, Hugs – Yes, as silly as this sounds, it’s been found that social media affects the brain the same way a hug does. So if you’re ever down and need a boost, find someone you care about and give them a big hug…but make sure its consensual!
I’d just like to say that social media is not an inherently evil thing, like all things in life it must be taken in moderation. Most of us have had the opportunity to experience childhood/adolescence in a world pre-social media, but our children will not be that lucky. Developing real-world social skills is important, and nurturing want-seek-desire behaviors and curiosity in the real world is important. Now that my PSA is finished….like and share this blog with all your friends, ‘cuz i need me some dopamine!