Social Media’s effects on the brain

Dr. Sara Siavoshi spoke with KUSI’s Lisa Remillard on Good Morning San Diego to discuss social media’s effects on the human brain and why people are on the platforms so often.

Facebook’s founding president, and former vice-president of user growth, Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya, respectively, shared some grim opinions regarding social media. Their comments revolved around the ways social media affects our brains without our knowledge. Productivity, feedback loops and social relationships were the main points they talked about. It’s not only them who have come forward to talk about these things; many former Google, Facebook and Twitter employees, who were integral in designing tools for these tech and social media giants, have opened up about the exploitive nature of a lot of design choices as well. It is one thing when sceptics of technology warn us about falling into a dystopian future, and another when the people who made these tools talk about the adverse effects. Let’s not prematurely conclude that social media is bad based just on these comments. I’m sure everyone’s quite aware of all the boons social media has brought us. With that in mind, let’s take a balanced approach on this subject. Firstly, let’s go over the concepts that revolve around social media.

WHY CAN’T YOU STOP?
Ever wondered why gambling can sometimes develop into an addiction? It’s really complex but two components play a role: variable rewards and dopamine. B. F. Skinner’s famous experiment (read up on it if interested) demonstrated how unpredictable rewards compel us to reinforce an action. For instance, when people play slot machines they don’t know whether they’ll win or lose; same goes for those claw machines where you pick up toys (claw machines are rigged, the strength of the claw is variable, it’s pretty much luck). If the rewards are not guaranteed then why do we keep playing? This is where dopamine comes in. I’m sure people have heard of dopamine being the pleasure chemical, responsible for addictions, but dopamine is extremely complex and has a whole host of different functions. I don’t want to oversimplify but for the sake of understanding, let’s just say that one of dopamine’s roles is to seek out rewards and make us follow our desires.

Here’s the really fascinating thing: dopamine gets released when we’re anticipating something good coming our way, and when it doesn’t come our brains compel us to do it again, hoping that the next time it will. Let’s get back to gambling where the rewards are random and based on luck. You pull the lever hoping to get a jackpot. A surge of dopamine is released into your brain. You don’t get it. You think maybe the next one is your lucky pull. Rinse and repeat.

SO MUCH INFORMATION

The human brain craves novel experiences and information. Before the advent of the internet, it was harder to acquire info from all over the world. Now, we’re saturated with info from every single corner, and obtaining information releases dopamine as well. Now think about this, how much information sticks with you? How much of it is actually useful for that matter? Is it better to concentrate and go through a particular subject or just passively read stuff from everywhere?

FEAR OF MISSING OUT

No matter how much we denounce society, at the end of the day we have to admit that society plays a big role in our lives. We want to know what our friends are doing, what’s going on in the country, what’s the next big controversy. In other words, we want to stay caught up with others and not miss out on anything. You see where this is going.

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With all that out of the way, let’s look at how two of the biggest tech companies, Facebook and Google, game our brain.
CASE STUDY: FACEBOOK

Justin Rosenstein, the creator of “Likes” on Facebook, calls them “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure”. While I don’t see it as harshly as he does, let’s go through why he might have said that. “Likes” are like validation points and we like to feel validated. This is where the social component comes into play, it’s just like real life when people high five you. This in itself doesn’t seem to make it bad but there’s another component. When users post something, they don’t know if people will like it or not, here comes the variable reward system. Dopamine surges up in anticipation of validation, they keep checking to see how many “Likes” they got, and the cycle continues. And what if they don’t get “Likes”? Then, they might feel devalued, what’s the use of posting something if no one even sees them, you know?

This might seem really pathetic but this is a crucial point: the negative effects of social media are more prevalent on people who have low self-control, low self-esteem and other conditions such as depression. A person with high willpower and discipline will hardly find these things as problematic. So, I request you to look through their perspective.

By the way, do you know why notifications on Facebook (and other sites) are red? Red is apparently a trigger colour, it makes it seem important even though it might not be.

A unique criticism of Facebook is the rapid spread of misinformation through it, and we’re no strangers to that. All those superstitions and conspiracy theories which were hard to spread years ago have found a home in niche groups, even literal secret Facebook groups, and we all have that one uncle who posts questionable “news”. Speaking of groups, Facebook and other social media sites act as echo chambers where inside opinions get validated while ignoring opposing views.

People with low self-esteem are also susceptible to comparing themselves to others, whether it be their looks, social lives or material belongings. As we all know, our lives aren’t half as exciting as we make it out to be on Facebook, and the prevalent phrase that states not to compare one’s behind-the-scenes with others’ highlight reels is quite apt.

Now let’s get on to the main feature of Facebook – the newsfeed. In the beginning, Facebook only had a reverse chronological newsfeed or the “Most Recent” newsfeed. Then it came out with the algorithmic newsfeed called “Top Stories” which curates which posts you would most likely be interested in based on the data they collect from you. Till date this is the default newsfeed (you can still go back to “Most Recent”). The main problem is that the “Top Stories” newsfeed never ends, it keeps on loading new stuff and you keep scrolling down. “Most Recent” has an incentive for you to stop when you scroll so far that you see the same posts from before. What’s worse is when you refresh the page, “Top Stories” loads completely new stuff from groups and pages, this incentivises to keep on refreshing.

But why are we compelled to keep scrolling? Well, all three components discussed earlier are incorporated into the newsfeed. We keep scrolling and refreshing, expecting to come across something amusing. Information keeps on coming, making our brains feel like they’re getting something useful. Finally, we keep coming back because if we don’t we might miss our friends roasting someone, or a new dank meme maybe.

Facebook, and other sites for that matter, could’ve easily divided the newsfeed into pages, but they didn’t. Instead we get an unlimited stream of posts to go through. Here’s an interesting piece of info: the dopamine spikes while using Facebook aren’t that high, they continuously slightly go up then down. This keeps us barely amused to stick around. Think about it, when’s the last time you felt really happy while browsing Facebook? Here’s another one: go through 20 posts on your newsfeed, how many of them are actually interesting/useful and how many are from pages and groups you don’t care that much about? And how much will you actually miss out on if you don’t login for a week?

CASE STUDY: YOUTUBE

At first, the maximum duration of a single video allowed to be uploaded on YouTube was 10 minutes. Later on they lifted this restriction, and now they value watch time over views. Longer videos get more priority and hence more money. But why exactly? It’s simple, they want you to keep watching. This isn’t weird; every website wants you to keep using it, just like Facebook. There’s no evil intention behind it; it’s just that the longer you’re there, the more ads you’ll see.

What other measures has YouTube taken to keep you hooked? Well, what about the suggested videos on the right hand side where you click one and end up wasting hours. A new one is the autoplay feature: after the video you intended to watch ends, a related video starts playing automatically. They also changed their search result to be never ending so you can keep on searching for that one perfect video.

Again, the brain chooses to click on the suggested video because it anticipates a probable reward, maybe a really good joke by Dave Chappelle which you can steal. Also, it loves information. I like watching scientific and educational videos but recently I’ve realised how little I actually remember them. Am I benefitted or did I just waste my time? I don’t know.

With everything said and done, what do we do now? There’s one group that denounces social media and accuses it of destroying social ties. There’s another group which praises it for bringing the whole world together. As always the answer is somewhere in the middle – moderation. All the former social media employees who dislike it have clearly stated that they didn’t intentionally create these tools to work like this, they just chased profits and user interactions and these accidentally turned into psychological tools.

Let’s go to the knife analogy, which states that the individual is responsible for how s/he uses the knife. I personally view social media as a very sharp knife with a slippery handle, so I could quite possibly stab myself. But that’s just me. It really does depend on the individuals and how susceptible they are to these manipulations. My personal advice would be to set a daily time limit for using these sites, make lists on Facebook for your friends, browse by “Most Recent”, and turn off autoplay on YouTube. A prominent study has shown that passive Facebook browsing undermines emotional well-being, and Facebook itself admitted to this and has advised to actively use the site by commenting and posting.

Several studies have also shown that Facebook adversely affects people suffering from anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, etc. So, social media is a problem for these demographics. Social media may also make us less focused and more distracted but more research is needed on that. At the end of the day, you can still hang out with your friends and chat online, you can still go to movie theatres and watch Netflix. You can just not care about “Likes” and shares, and the awareness of how these sites try to game us will further help us in getting that balance.

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