Studies Show Excessive Social Media Use Parallels Substance Abuse

I was one of the last generations to grow up without social media. Facebook did not start becoming popular until the end of high school and I never felt inclined to join the Twitterverse.  Now that the negative effects of social media are a mainstream conversation, I am grateful that I did not have to make the impossible choice between maintaining my mental health or fitting in with my peers. Kids growing up now are entrenched in social media from an increasingly young age. My generation cannot simply wipe our foreheads, grateful that we were given a chance to grow up normal. We must stay informed, stay vigilant, and ally ourselves with today’s and tomorrow’s youth to push for a more ethical and humane tech environment.

Social media is addictive. That much is clear. The Addiction Center categorizes social media as behaviorally addictive, meaning that a person becomes dependent on a set of behaviors without consuming any additional substances.  When a person abuses a substance, their body may become dependent on it to the point of cravings and erratic behavior. In contrast, behavioral addictions, like food or gambling, result in similar feelings of addiction simply by participating in that behavior. New research has found evidence that excessive social media use parallels the cognitive impacts of drug addiction in more ways than expected.

The decision-making process 
A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that excessive social media use affects people’s decision-making abilities, making them more likely to engage in “risky behaviors.” Lead author Dar Meshi reports observing the same impaired decisiveness in the brains of those addicted to social media as seen in those heavily abusing addictive substances.  The study points to overlapping changes in the brain structure, including shrinking brain regions that compute value during the decision-making process, resulting in difficulty making value-based decisions.

This first of its kind research asked 71 participants to take a survey measuring their psychological dependence on Facebook. Questions asked users about their preoccupation with the platforms, their emotions when not using it, any attempts to stop using it, and the impact that Facebook has on their job, studies, and relationships. Participants then completed the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), a device commonly used by psychologists to evaluate decision-making. The IGT revealed that the more excessive a person’s social media use, the more likely they were to make a bad choice during a task. 

It is significant to note that the IGT evaluates decision-making based on rewards and punishments. The results thus imply that excessive social media users give more weight to potential positive outcomes than potential negative outcomes. Dar Meshi and his colleagues conclude that excessive social media use compromises an individual’s ability to learn from their mistakes and makes them more likely to continue down a negative path in a way that parallels substance abuse. This result is complementary to the results of people who abuse opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, or other addictive substances.

The award system 
Neuroscientists are also studying the effect social media has on the brain’s award system, finding that positive interactions, like someone liking your photo, trigger the same chemical reaction that occurs when someone takes addictive drugs or participates in a behaviorally addictive activity like gambling. According to Harvard researcher Trevor Haynes, receiving positive social stimulation from social media ignites the brain’s reward center, which releases dopamine, giving us that feel-good sensation and making it more likely that we will repeat that behavior. Dopamine also happens to be one of the main chemicals responsible for substance abuse and behavioral addictions.

Smartphones have essentially given us an unlimited supply of social stimulation right at our fingertips.  Every time someone gets a like or positive notification, dopamine releases and attaches to pleasure receptors. The more likes and notifications you receive, the more dopamine is released, and the better you feel. Another contributing factor to social media addiction is that the brain’s reward centers are most active when you are talking about yourself. People talk about themselves 30-40% of the time during in-person conversations, compared to social media, where people talk about themselves about 80% of the time. 

Online vs. in-person interactions

So, if dopamine is supposed to make us feel good, why do so many people report feeling depressed due to social media use?  In an interview with TechRadar, evolutionary anthropologist Dr. Anna Machin explains that although dopamine is an integral part of social interaction, more is needed for those interactions to be meaningful. During a face-to-face social interaction, the brain releases two chemicals in addition to dopamine. Oxytocin lowers inhibitions, quiets the fear part of the brain, and allows you to feel confident in created new relationships. Beta endorphins are another “feel good” chemical similar to dopamine and can also result in withdrawal feelings if we don’t get enough; this encourages people to continue to be together and interact over and over.

According to Dr. Machin, dopamine, oxytocin, and beta-endorphins must all be released for us to have meaningful social interactions. You get a ton of dopamine when you use social media, but no oxytocin or beta-endorphins. Therefore, the brain only gets a short feeling of instant gratification but does not feel as if it has had a meaningful social interaction. The problem begins when a person relies on social media as a coping mechanism to relieve stress, loneliness, or depression. In these cases, social media provides continuous rewards that people are not receiving in real life, so they engage in more online activity than in-person experiences. This often leads people to ignore real-life relationships,  responsibilities, and health issues because those activities may cause undesirable emotions or moods, and social media dependency goes through the roof.  

The significance 

The results of these studies have important societal implications. According to a Statista report published last month, over three and a half billion people worldwide regularly use social networking sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, with Internet users spending an average of 144 minutes a day on social media and messaging apps. These numbers are only anticipated to grow, resulting in more negative implications like those observed in the above studies. 

There is no doubt that social media has the potential to provide users with tremendous benefits. Still, we need to recognize the darker impact of how these platforms are changing our society. We have essentially given big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter the ability to shape and change not only our culture but the structure of our brains with limited oversight or regulation. 

The needs of the human brain and the goal of social media companies are devastatingly mismatched. Those companies make money from advertisements, and the more time you spend on social media, the more advertisements you see and the more money they make. This means that becoming addicted to social media, from a business standpoint, is wonderful for those companies. 

So why would they ever change their structure if the addictive quality of their platforms is exactly what makes them billions of dollars? In my opinion, they won’t. That’s why it is so important that we push for litigation and regulations on social media companies. Policymakers cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the negative impacts of social media and cannot continue to allow just a handful of tech corporations to hold unbridled power over the global community. 

I encourage you to start conversations and rethink our relationships with social media. Ask yourself how you can use these platforms as tools to complement your life and align with your personal well-being. 

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Annalisa Kolb is a co-founder of Better Tech Network and a current student at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, focusing on advocacy and litigation in hopes of dedicating her legal career to privacy and cybersecurity law. Feeling alone among her peers in her growing concern about the current tech climate, Annalisa co-founded BTN to find other like-minded individuals around the world. This article was inspired by her interest in the psychological effects of social media on a global scale.

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