Social Media Addiction: A Neuroscientist's Perspective
By Nick Monaco
If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when you’re supposed to be working, you’re not alone. A recent study showed on average, phone users amassed over 2,500 touches a day, leading to 145 minutes of daily usage time (Winnick, 2016). That is a total of 36 days per year that the average person spends on their phone.
The social benefits of phones and social media are unrivalled in human history – from the rapidity and ease of connecting with friends, to keeping up to date with relevant cultural information. However, studies have revealed that a majority of people believe they spend more time on social media than confers these social benefits. 54% of teens believe they spend too much time on their phone and 57% have attempted to cut down on social media use at least once (Jiang, 2020). So, what causes us to spend more time on our phones than we would like and why is it so hard to reduce our dependence on social media? In an attempt to answer this question, this article explores how social media algorithms interact with the same reward circuitry in the brain that is dysregulated in substance misuse and gambling addiction.
“Rewards produce learning” (Schultz, 2013). Akin to Skinner’s rats learning to press levers to attain rewards or Pavlov’s dogs drooling at the sound of a bell they learnt to be associated with reward, social media generates a wealth of rewards and cues that lead to learning and habit formation. This habit formation is mediated by dopamine, a neurotransmitter, in brain areas known to be involved in reward processing. Despite common knowledge, dopamine release is not directly correlated to delivery of reward; instead, recent research has shown it is involved in the prediction of reward (Schultz et al.,1997). When a reward occurs, it is either better, worse, or equal to its prediction and the reward prediction error is the difference between the reward and its prediction. This can be applied to receiving ‘likes’ on social media. If you get more likes than expected, (positive prediction error) dopamine release is greater and we update our prediction and change our behaviour, eventually forming a habit. Similarly, fewer likes than expected generates a negative prediction error which decreases the dopamine response, lowers expectation of reward and makes us less likely to engage in the same behaviour. Interestingly, if the reward is fully expected, no dopamine release occurs and no learning occurs. This is when the dopamine prediction error then feedbacks and leads to habitual behaviour through changing the strength (plasticity) of neural connections in brain areas known to be involved in action selection (Graybiel, 2008). For example, after you have formed a habit of using social media daily, you start constantly checking your phone, independent of whether any notifications or cue drive you there.
So how does social media take advantage of the neuroscience behind learning and reward? Unpredictability is exciting. Tic-Tac-Toe is interesting for children who don’t know the optimal strategy but boring for adults who can predict every game. We now know reward uncertainty leads to greater prediction errors and therefore will magnify dopaminergic activity leading to optimal learning/ addiction. Social media takes advantage of this by manipulating the timing of reward delivery in order to produce continuous dopamine release. Buzz notifications play a crucial role. By popping up on your phone at unpredictable times, they act as cues for reward, leading to positive dopamine efflux. Through this repeated reinforcement learning we form habitual behaviour where we constantly check our phones for more rewards. There is now even a start-up, ‘the Dopamine Labs’, who are employed by apps to optimize notifications so that more people will return to the app (Shieber, 2017).
Looking deeper into specific apps we can see many cases where this dopamine driven reinforcement learning is enhanced. For example, Instagram is known to withhold likes and instead release them at once so that the reward is less expected and thus the dopamine response is greater. A similar thing happens on Tinder, where instead of optimizing the amount of ‘matches’ possible, unpredictability is created by holding back potential partners so that matches come at episodic times. The ‘pull down’ refreshing feature of many social media apps also encodes unpredictability – in a way similar to a lever on a slot machine – and excites us to constantly check our phones, independent of whether a rewarding stimuli or post appears. Social media apps also incorporate endless scrolling so that the user is so immersed in the app that they forget about time or space. This sets up a high quantity variable reward system where that the user is rewarded unexpectedly e.g. when scrolling through TikTok, interesting videos appear on your feed unpredictably keeping you on the app not knowing when the next rewarding video will appear.
So what’s the solution to society’s social media addiction? In an age of exponential technological progress, the future looks pretty bleak –– the $52 billion social media industry is incentivized to feed our addiction. Social media is free to use; we are the products, not the customers. Every minute we spend on Instagram increases advertisement revenue and the amount of data that can be sold. Perhaps the power of social media giants, whose business model relies on people spending time on their screens, is too strong. This is highlighted by reports from the Dopamine Lab, who after producing an app that increases screen time, created another app called ‘Space’, with the goal of breaking social media habits. However, Apple rejected the app from the App Store with the rationale that any app which intentionally encourages people to use apps or their iPhone less was unacceptable for distribution in the App Store.
I thus argue the solution needs to come from the individual. Although social media apps rely on inherent neurological circuitry to hold onto our attention, there are steps the individual can take to ensure that this does not lead to dependence, or even addiction. Simple things like removing notifications from apps can go a fair way to breaking the habitual loops that keep us addicted to our phones. Experts also encourage users to take a step back and conduct simple experiments to identify how their happiness varies with social media usage. Noticing that you may be happier with lower levels of usage may provide the motivation to break the habit. This is backed up by a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania showing that those who self monitored and limited the time they spent on social media had reductions in loneliness and depression (Hunt, 2018). However, complete abstinence of a behaviour is not an efficient way to break a habit (Alter, 2018). In such a way many smokers don’t break their addiction by going ”cold turkey” but by replacing smoking with nicotine gum or patches. Therefore, when limiting social media usage a suitable replacement should be found. This is a highly personalized approach and depends on the main motivation of the habit in the first place. For example, if your motivation for using social media is from receiving positive feedback from peers, maybe a sustained effort to socialize with people in person will help to replace the habit. Although, solutions like this are harder due to the current pandemic.
About the Author
Nick Monaco is a junior at Harvard College concentrating in Neuroscience.
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