The neuroscience behind social media addictive behavior

The Neuroscience of Social Media Engagement

It was the XKCD comic that famously gave us the articulation of every social media user’s desire to right someone’s ‘wrong’ opinion on the web. The cartoon has become an enduring meme because it accurately reflects the sudden passion that overwhelms us the moment we get in a discussion with a stranger over something that usually impacts neither of us directly.

Add to it the compulsion to constantly check the feed of the different socio-technic platforms we subscribe to out of the very real fear of missing out and we end up with a relatively universally felt need to engage and stay engaged without really understanding why.

Until now.

Natasha Schüll, Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at Steinhardt University spent 15 years studying gambling addiction and Las Vegas slot machines and calls the state of mind that keeps us engaged at repetitive tasks with no visible reward a ludic loop - the interaction is the reward in itself and the fact that we are stuck in a repetitive, seemingly obsessive behavioral cycle is the direct result of design choices that govern the machine/human interface.

The negative impact of addictive behavior is chronicled well enough to beg the obvious question of “since we know the consequences why do we persist in behavior that is ultimately harmful to us?”. Now, tobacco smokers may well ask themselves the same question and the answer, apparently, is remarkably similar. When addiction is not rooted in genetics its cause can be traced directly to the rewiring of the brain that’s driven by the action/reward cycle.

More specifically the non-goal orientated use of social media mirrors the slot machine experiment where an action can be rewarded by something (hitting the jackpot) or nothing. The mesmerizing effect of slot machine mechanics creates the ludic loop effect Schüll talks about where the critical faculty of the brain is bypassed and the rewiring that happens creates a reward out of the comforting experience of the action itself. From that point on the path becomes depressingly predictable.

Brains that have been rewired by addiction are more prone to depression Brains that are prone to depression engage in habit-oriented model-free learning strategies which means that the activity they engage in becomes part of the reward being experienced and the lack of results achieved fails to become a lesson. Because the brains of individuals who exhibit depressive behavior suffer from impaired learning (compared to model-based goal-orientated healthy brains) their decision-making is compromised and their inability to learn from experience dissociates their risk-assessment from value-based decision-making. In other words emotions rule them and the risks associated with potentially self-harming behavior are completely overlooked.

With studies accumulating on the harmful effects of extended use of Facebook and Twitter it becomes clearer that unless a strategy of usage is consciously put in place and social media is quantified by us, at an individual level, with goals, objectives and outcomes we only open ourselves up to its potential for harm.

This is not the 20th century any more. We have digital tools we use by design and we embark upon behavioral paths that are, consciously or subconsciously, intentional. What we need, in many ways, is the personal awareness that will lead us to the next level of our being. The path where we use technology to achieve our end as opposed to it using our basic drives against us.

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