We now carry our social worlds in our pocket.
Our friend-lists are paper-trails of past acquaintances, giving us a little window to voyeuristically peer into their lives, casually connect, or rekindle a friendship. Paradoxically, we can be alone, yet profoundly connected. Like Riesman’s (2001) “lonely crowd,” we are perpetually other-directed, scanning and finger-scrolling screens, searching for a kind of stimulation that never seems to fulfill our sense that we might not be good enough.
Picturesque portraits in Machu Picchu, selfies in the sand in Santorini, engagements, children, and new homes remind us of how we always seem to be missing out on life’s milestones and adventures. We curate our online identities, attempting to live up to an impossible standard, ever-more concerned with our digital reputation.
Compulsive social media use has become a form of addiction.
Recent neurological research points to the importance of the brain’s reward-circuit. Meshi et al. (2013) used functional neuroimaging data to uncover the impact of Facebook use on the nucleus accumbens, the brains pleasure-center within the reward-circuitry. The researchers concluded that “reward-related activity in the left nucleus accumbens predicts Facebook use.” In addition, they found “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus. The brain’s mechanism for processing self-relevant gains in reputation through Facebook use mirrors the reward circuitry activated through addiction to psychotropic substances.
According to Polk (2015), addiction fundamentally results from a prediction error in the brain. When the nucleus accumbens is stimulated beyond an expectation, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) releases dopamine, encouraging learning, as held by the Rescorla-Wagner model. Polk emphasizes the role of dopamine as a neurotransmitter associated with craving and reward expectation, putting individuals at risk of compulsive behaviors when reencountering a trigger associated with the potential reward.
This reward circuitry applies to digital addictions such as Facebook through the stimulus of unexpected gains in perceived reputation when sharing a piece of content. Likes, comments, and shares are all potential sources of these unexpected gains, stimulating the nucleus accumbens, activating the dopamine response from the VTA.
Over time, the nucleus accumbens adapts to the dopamine response, requiring increasing stimulation. This may come in the form of seeking more likes, comments, shares, or spending an increasing amount of time using social media technologies, even at the peril of our safety and the safety of others while driving. Recent legislation banning the use of hand-held technologies while operating a motor-vehicle is a response to this increasingly prevalent addiction.
Although Facebook is a ‘social’ media platform, it does not necessarily mean it makes us more ‘social’. It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-works when abused as an addiction, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our carefully curated online identities. Although social media can isolate us through compulsive mindless voyeurism and identity-construction associated with social comparison and reputational enhancement, this is not the full story. There are many non-addictive ways social media can be used.
Social media can be social when used in social ways.It can bring together international families grieving the loss of a loved one, connect soldiers in combat with their families back home, rekindle long-lost friendships, or as Facebook itself says, “help you connect and share with the people in your life.” Social media is social when used in ways that help build deeper connections between us.
Social media is quickly becoming one of the strongest forces that both unites and divides us.
We need to be conscious of how we use these platforms so they can do the former. A “war-on-drugs” approach is not going to work. The problem is not social media itself, but rather, the way we use social media.
Social media technologies are not necessarily anti-social. As with all new technological developments, we need to learn how to form healthy relationships with them. Social media technologies can be substances of abuse, acting as barriers to authentic social relatedness, keeping us looking outward while remaining trapped inside our own self-centered concern for reputational enhancement. On the other hand, when used healthfully, they can help contribute to human flourishing by connecting us to the people and causes that matter to us most.