Ever since kids have started to become addicted to Facebook, or any social media site for the fact, there have been millions of studies that have said that addiction is extremely harmful for the mental well-being of kids and people, and we need to reduce their dependence on social media so that we can ensure that their health remains good.
But something that some studies haven’t focused on (and if they have, they have done so rarely) is to why social media is addicting. We all know social media was addicting from the start, but what is it about it that makes it so appealing, so unable-to-let-go? Only when we examine the origination and impact of a disease can we do something about it (laughs in Covid-19), and that is the same approach that this article will undertake.
So, the basic chemistry is that our brain is practically responsible for the release of the “Feel Good’’ chemicals, namely serotonin and dopamine, and even oxytocin. Our brain practically has four major dopamine ‘‘pathways’’, which are essentially neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are associated with their own cognitive or motor process, and out of those 4, 3 of them are considered to be our “reward” pathways.
So, what do I mean by “reward”? It essentially refers to any sort of external stimuli or feedback that makes us feel good about ourselves, or something that we can consider to be positive.
So, whenever we participate in any external engagement, or any exciting, rewarding events, these 3 pathways are activated, and thereby over time, reinforce the relation between stimuli and reward by becoming stronger every time a response to a stimulus results in what we can perceive as a “reward”. Therefore, this long term enforcement is what hardwired our brain into releasing chemicals (The Happy Triad) whenever that same type of an activity is repeated.
As a result, our brain automatically tries to seek out the sources of stimuli that can provide it rewards, so that it can itself feel even better.
This is essentially the science that social media weaponizes in order for its own growth and success. It has literally transformed our brains into a trigger happy dopamine gun, ready to fire bullets of dopamine whenever the slightest reward even showcases the slightest chance to be accessible.
This is what happens when we swipe on our feeds and when we like posts, tweets and comment on the stuff people are doing, or even finding memes funny. Our brain is on the lookout for such cases where it can release small amounts of dopamine every second, thereby artificially producing dopamine for the body, instead of releasing it at actual, positive rewards, experiences and accomplishments.
This feeling of recognition whenever someone likes our tweets, posts or comments, “Go slayyyyy” on our Instagram posts is akin to the rush people feel when they gamble or even indulge in substance addiction. Social media acts as a source of immediate rewards for the brain in the form of attention, thus leaning towards the origin of the “Attention Economy” and is at the cost of the least expense of bodily energy – a thumb swiping on a screen.
But here’s the thing: You all must already know this well before this article even comes out. So how is this article any different from the other thousands of studies that have already been conducted, or the seminars you went through in school which told you about how harmful social media usage is, which you brilliantly ignored while scrolling your feed on Instagram?
Well, this article talks about how the lack of these chemicals affect us, and society as a whole. More so, the real question here is: What happens when the brain is deprived of these chemicals? What does the brain do then? Or what happens when the brain produces chemicals that are exactly the opposite of what it has been accustomed to produce?
Now this gets interesting. The human brain has something called the amygdala, which is essentially responsible for the regulation of emotions like fear and aggression, and is also responsible in tying emotional meaning to our decision making, reward processing pathways and processes.
So whenever we do use social media, the release of dopamine by the brain (and the reinforcement of the reward pathways from such an activity) causes the amygdala to send the signal to secrete dopamine and other happy chemicals, since the particular type of stimuli has already been enforced in our brain.
This act is tied heavily with the spread of hate speech on social media platforms like Facebook, which are responsible for an extremely high number of hate crimes across the world, with the most notable being the storming of the US Capitol last year.
The use of hate speech behind this event was at its most extreme, which when furthered by the comments of the then POTUS Donald Trump Jr, acted as a match landing on an entire vat of kerosene, which instantly erupted in a frenzied outburst of hate and violent tendencies.
So, what is the connection between hate crimes and the Happy Triad of chemicals? Well, there is. Whenever we use social media, the triad of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, is released by the brain. However, oxytocin, which is considered to be the love hormone, evolves into something else entirely.
Whenever we as humans participate in external acts of meeting new people and interacting with them, the brain produces oxytocin, which enhances our sense of the relationships we have with people. This helps us to feel more connected to them, and makes us like them even more. Essentially, the chemical is responsible for the amplification of the effect of a social experience, whether it may be positive or negative.
But this hormone is also capable of the exact opposite. Since the production of oxytocin reinforces the brain's notions of positive stimuli, it makes the brain avoid those events wherein the production of oxytocin is not probable, or events which do not reinforce the brain’s perception of positive stimuli.
This explanation was at an individual level. Now imagine this at a societal level, on people who are supporters of say, a certain ideology or a political party, and their views on certain issues. So when people see articles, news or posts on social media that do not meet with their opinions, people label them as “wrong” or even “outrageous”. And when someone who is viewed as the representation of the ideology that a group of people believe in, says the same things that their mind thinks, and urges them to overcome those issues by any way possible, people are whipped up in a frenzy of anger and hate.
So in the case of the storming of the Capitol building, when the supporters of the Republican party saw that their leader, Donald Trump Jr, say that the election was “rigged” so as to defeat him, and that he may lose, were whipped up in a fit of anger. Therefore, when Donald Trump Jr urged his supporters to “fight like hell”, all hell broke loose, and then we all know what happened.
However, the question is that how the supporters were already in a state of hate and frenzy, and only needed one statement by their leader to make them do such a thing? Well, this is where Facebook and its hate speech propagation came in, which is where the brain’s secretion of chemicals came in.
Since these people were already so exposed to news, posts and articles that triggered their brains to release oxytocin in such a manner that they were made to felt angry and threatened, was where this notion had already been cemented in their minds. And since their brains had already been accustomed to the regular stimuli reactions that provided “rewards”, the lack of access to such events, like the existence of pro-Republican ideology and the lack of positive press against their leader, deprived them of their rush of instant dopamine, they became agitated and angry a long time before anyone knew what was happening.
This instance of using triggers to make people resent certain ideologies and sections of society by exploiting their brain’s new composition that is incredibly oriented with the production of the Happy Triad fueled by social media is something that is what amazes me. The fact that social media has altered our brains to such an extent that if we don’t have access to the rush of happy chemicals, and when we only view the content that makes the brain do the opposite and makes it capable to make people commit such depraved acts of violence, is quite frankly an amazing and terrifying case of re-engineering the brain.
To conclude, can I say that the people who stormed the Capitol were not at fault, and so was Donald Trump right? Absolutely not. But this concept has more grey areas in it than we care to see, because the advent and the usage of social media has completely changed our own composition as “people”, and has terrifying prospects for us at a species in the future, and especially when we realise that one social media is capable of inciting such acts at an instant, without our realisation in the first place.