We all know the feeling, that little buzz you get when someone likes your picture on Instagram. No, I don’t mean the phone vibration – that little giddy feeling you get when you watch the likes climb ever higher. But when you don’t get it, your stomach sinks. Shouldn’t the permeating ‘Fear of Missing Out’ effect (FoMO) and cyberbullying be driving us away? Instead they reel us right back in and we’re hooked. So what’s going on in our brains when we use social media? Do we have a social media addiction?
How does it start?
Dopamine is a versatile little neurotransmitter. Dopamine produced from the substantia nigra, a small nucleus in the midbrain, is responsible for helping us to move whereas dopamine from the ventral tegmental, another small section near the substantia nigra and just above the hippocampus, is the reward transmitter. Receiving the latter type of dopamine encourages repetition. If a dog gets a treat, the dopamine encourages the dog to repeat the behaviour that prompted the treat. We receive dopamine from exercise, and our social media use. It may be a factor in what keeps us coming back, but dopamine isn’t the sole instigator behind addictive behaviour.
So, we might be lured in by a chemical reaction in the brain, but is it a social media addiction?
FoMO, or the ‘fear of missing out’ has us combing our social feeds for what our friends are doing at all times of the day and night. Older studies show that socially exclusive activities, e.g. the social media kind that induce FoMO, have a very real psychological effect. Participants in the study underwent MRI scans while playing a ball game, specifically designed to exclude a single participant. The brain scans of the excluded individual showed greater activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC). These areas of the brain alert us to the presence of distress and try to regulate these negative feelings, respectively.
From starting out on a dopamine high to ending on a FoMO low, studies show online social forums present the opportunities for cyberbullying and body image problems in girls. A study from the Royal Society for Public Health suggests that 70% of all young people are experiencing cyberbullying in some form, with 37% of them reporting that it happens on a regular basis. Social media gives young people constant access to each other, without the deterrent of face-to-face confrontation.
Why do we keep coming back?
The report from RSPH lists the positive benefits that social media can have; making and building friendships, self expression and exploration, and emotional support among others. Social media is changing the way we communicate and seek out these essential peer-to-peer interactions, and is also changing our brains to adapt to our modern world. Research shows that just as practising a skill such as juggling can alter our brain, so too can social media use alter the way we think. It might mean that we’re better at detecting trends and interacting in large groups, rather than face-to-face interaction.
So, do we have a social media addiction?
Probably not. Dopamine is getting a bad reputation as the sole cause of addictions, but they are much more complex than that. An addiction is a disease that affects the way our brain works for the worse. Research from The National Institute on Drug Abuse suggests that up to 40-60% of our chances of getting an addiction lies in our genetics. The other factors include outside influences such as our upbringing or how early we adopt the addiction. It’s hard to say that everyone that is a heavy social media user is addicted, and detrimental to diminish the seriousness of addictions.
If you’re heavy on social media use, try:
- Switching off your notifications. Without the constant reminders to check your phone, you’re much less likely to keep hurrying back to the apps when you feel like a break.
- Delete the app on at least one device. It might make you feel a little less brain-cluttered if you stop hopping from one device to the other to look at the same sites.
- Be aware. Social media can be fun, and is a great way to catch up with all your friends. Remind yourself of this, and don’t get caught up on likes – they don’t mean anything more than the click of a button.
How do you manage to balance your social media use? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.
If you’re experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression, you can reach out to organisations like Headspace for help.
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Author: Heather Catchpole
Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs