Anything that produces pleasure in a person’s brain can lead to addiction. Due to the effect that it has on the brain, social media is addictive both physically and psychologically. According to a new study by Harvard University, self-disclosure on social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance. The reward area in the brain and its chemical messenger pathways affect decisions and sensations. When someone experiences something rewarding, or uses an addictive substance, neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated, causing dopamine levels to rise. Therefore, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement. Microtargeting and other online strategies designed to induce addictive behavior points towards a culture of manipulation in the online environment in which most individuals are unaware of how they are being used.
Since 1856 when cocaine had been isolated from the coca plant, the drug was widely used for its pain-killing properties. The drug found its way into such medicines as children’s tooth-ache remedies and was even prescribed to treat morning sickness. Sherlock Holmes is undoubtedly literature’s most famous cocaine user. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Holmes uses cocaine in order to stimulate his brain when he wasn’t applying it to a case. Although his habit was always condemned by Watson, in later stories Holmes himself referred to his hypodermic syringe as an ‘instrument of evil’. Similarly, the recreational use of cocaine fell off sharply at the end of the 19th century as its dangers became apparent. After the Harrison Narcotic Act that identified cocaine as a forbidden substance in 1914, cocaine abuse in America was a rather quiet phenomenon for several decades, with just a few exceptions.
American pharmacist John Stith Pemberton founded Coca-Cola in 1886 with a beverage concoction derived from coca leaves and African kola nuts. Coca-Cola – at first sold only at racially segregated soda fountains – became popular among the white middle-classes. It is advertised to alleviate exhaustion: “you will be surprised how easily it will restore the tired brain, sooth the rattled nerves and restore wasted energy to body and mind.” In 1899, Coca-Cola began selling its drink in bottles. The lower classes and minorities now had access to the cocaine-infused tonic. The company removed cocaine from its products in 1903, and two years later started adding caffeine. While caffeine produces a small rise in dopamine, it does not cause the large surge that unbalances the reward circuits in the brain that is necessary for an addiction. So even though the word “addiction” is often used casually, caffeine is not addictive (scientifically speaking).1
Crack cocaine – a crystallized form of cocaine – became popular in the 1980s. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the price of illegal cocaine dropped by as much as 80 percent during the late 1970s as a glut of the white powder flooded the U.S. market. Dealers looking for new ways to sell their products turned to crack. The name “crack” is derived from the crackling sound this form of cocaine makes when burned. Crack could be produced by dissolving powdered cocaine in a mixture of water and ammonia and boiling it down until a solid formed. Broken into smaller chunks, or “rocks,” this solid form could be smoked. Crack has a modified chemical structure which allows it to reach the brain more quickly and produce a more intense high, allowing crack to have a greater potential for addiction.
When cocaine reappeared in the 1970s it was touted as the champagne of drugs because it was expensive, high status, and said to have no serious consequences. Crack cocaine was popularized because of its affordability, its immediate euphoric effect, and its high profitability. Crack usage began to surge in the 1980s. Around the same time, crime in some major cities spiked – political tensions erupted as the nation entered a so-called “crack epidemic.” This leads to the War on Drugs, with unintended consequences. For example, the same minimum penalty of five years was given for 1 gram of crack cocaine as for 100 grams of powdered cocaine. Where cocaine was expensive to purchase, crack could be bought at affordable prices and became prevalent in working class and poorer neighborhoods. Opponents argued the law was racist, since crack users were more likely to be African American.
A study at Michigan State University found that people who report using social media a lot tend to struggle with decision-making. Because this type of deficit in decision-making skills often goes hand-in-hand with drug addiction as well as a gambling addiction, the researchers likened the results of excessive social media use to aspects of an addiction. Aside from the obvious anxiety and nervousness that being away from social media can cause some people, there are some other telltale signs that they may have an addiction to social media. These include everything from isolating themselves from others, losing interest in activities they once found enjoyable, and getting agitated, angry, or anxious when they are unable to check social media. According to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, social media can adapt to limit its addictive effects – unlike other habit-forming outlets. This comment suggests the way platforms present information to users may change to stave off addictive behaviors and encourage people to engage without fear of forming dependency.
The phenomena of social media addiction can largely be attributed to the dopamine-inducing social environments that social networking sites provide. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram produce the same neural circuitry that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs to keep consumers using their products as much as possible. Studies have shown that the constant stream of retweets, likes, and shares from these sites have affected the brain’s reward area to trigger the same kind of chemical reaction as other drugs, such as cocaine. When an individual gets a notification, such as a like or mention, the brain receives a rush of dopamine and sends it along reward pathways, causing him or her to feel pleasure. Social media provides an endless amount of immediate rewards in the form of attention from others for relatively minimal effort. Therefore, the brain rewires itself through this positive reinforcement, making people desire likes, retweets, and emotional reactions.2
Scientists have discovered that most people who use social media end up comparing themselves to the lives of everyone they know. Platforms like Facebook can have a negative effect on mood. Users report feeling like they’ve wasted time spending hours of socially scrolling. Updates from friends and influencers can also leave people feeling jealous and unfulfilled. These emotions are unhealthy, and they are something our newfound awareness of mental health has allowed us to identify. In an attempt to look after themselves, many people are now turning to the social or digital detox. A recent survey of social media users discovered 24.4% of individuals had deleted their social accounts. However, over 30% of respondents had removed social media applications without actually deleting their profiles. This 30% don’t want to remove themselves from the social scene totally. They are instead detoxing – in other words, taking a break.
Researchers have called for adaptive regulatory frameworks that can limit information extraction from and modulation of someone’s mind using experimental neurotechnologies. Social computing shows that you don’t necessarily have to read people’s brains to influence their choices. It is sufficient to collect and mine the data they regularly – and often unwittingly – share online. Therefore, we need to consider setting for the digital space a firm threshold for cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty highlights the freedom to control one’s own cognitive dimension (including preferences, choices and beliefs) and to be protected from manipulative strategies that are designed to bypass one’s cognitive defenses. The EU data protection authority has underscored if recklessly applied to the electoral domain, these activities could even change or reduce “the space for debate and interchange of ideas,” a risk which “urgently requires a democratic debate on the use and exploitation of data for political campaign and decision-making.”3
The idea of the human mind as the domain of absolute protection from external intrusion has persisted for centuries, but is now under attack. Most of the current online ecosystem strategies are designed to induce addictive behavior, hence to manipulate. What is the response? On personal level social media is engineered to be addictive, but that doesn’t mean it makes you happy. Research shows it can actually make you feel sad, depressed, and isolated, so limiting your social media use can pay dividends in terms of mental health as well as improving productivity and relationships. However, the power elite still target users with customized digital ads and other manipulative information to purposively swing election campaigns around the world. It is necessary to protect our cognitive liberty from psychological manipulation – social influence that aims to change our behavior or perception through indirect, deceptive, or underhanded tactics. Big data analytics needs to be managed and controlled similarly to drugs with harmful health effects.
1 History: The Origins of Coca https://www.deamuseum.org/ccp/coca/history.html
2 Jena Hilliard Social Media Addiction https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction/
3 Marcello Lenca and Effy Vayena (30 Mar 2018) Cambridge Analytica and Online Manipulation. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/cambridge-analytica-and-online-manipulation/