Do you ever truly disconnect? Recently, I took a vacation where the internet and cell service were not readily available. (Yes, such places still exist.) I joked with my friends that I “was off the grid,” and it raised the question, are we too connected? Has our use of smartphones, the internet, and social media become more detrimental than beneficial?
According to a study presented in November at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America — an association of more than 54,000 radiologists, radiation oncologists, medical physicists, and related scientists — the use of the internet and smartphones can be harmful and even addictive, and most vulnerable are Generation Z as well as the millennials. Researchers suggest their overuse can impair the ability to find satisfaction in jobs and personal relationships. In fact, RSNA determined that the research actually shows an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to the internet and their smartphones.
Everyone has seen the group sitting around a table in a restaurant all glued to his or her phone, either not talking or just talking to each other about what they are seeing on social media. And perhaps we are all guilty of quickly moving to find our phones every time we hear an “alert.” In fact, research by the Android’s “Locket” app estimates that the average person checks their smartphone 110 times per day, and research by Nokia reports that number to be 150 times per day. The concern is that this interferes with humanity’s ability to be present with people and life activities occurring around them.
Some evidence indicates that our brains are being “chemically conditioned” to seek and respond to alerts, posts, and new messages. The culprit is dopamine, a neurotransmitter known in the medical world as the “pleasure chemical.” Chemicals in the brain transmit messages between brain cells and various regions of the brain (i.e., the brain talks to itself). Dopamine is not the only neurotransmitter involved in pleasure, but it seems to be the most prominent. It is active in our brain when we engage in activities like eating, sleep, sex, and the consumption of alcohol and other drugs. It is also involved in “positive social connection.” Receiving a smile or a compliment activates the same areas of the brain as other enjoyable activities. Social interactions, when acknowledged or approved of by someone else, are thus rewarding on a chemical level as we experience feelings of pleasure or well-being.
Recent research into dopamine suggests that it is not only involved in the experience of pleasure, but also in the seeking of pleasure. In fact, its most prominent function might be to get us to look for things in life that will be pleasurable. The experience of pleasure temporarily slows down the seeking behavior, but only for a time. Individuals differ in the length of time they are satisfied with a pleasurable activity before the seeking begins again. Scientists are studying whether this may be a genetic or neurochemical predisposition to addiction, and research is suggesting that some people may be more vulnerable than others to being addicted to the pleasure seeking aspects of dopamine in the brain. Positive social media interactions trigger that dopamine system, leading you to continue it. Social media interaction is at risk of becoming a substitute for real world social interaction.
During a speech to the Stanford Graduate School of Business this past November, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, created quite a stir by his statement that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” He further claimed that he felt “tremendous guilt” over his participation in creating “tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
Days before Palihapitiya’s talk, Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, said that while he did not anticipate the consequences of Facebook’s direction as a 2 billion user network, he felt that Facebook is fundamentally designed to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology” to addict users. “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” he said. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
The use of social media seems to have several primary functions. First, it provides a source of social connection. All of us need some social connection for positive physical and mental health. Second, social media provides social feedback and reinforcement. It informs us regarding approval or disapproval by others, thereby giving it a behavioral shaping function as we tend to do the things in our lives that others like and approve of. This “social-validation feedback loop,” as Parker described it, is a huge part of the attraction to social media. In this sense, social reinforcement is a major building block of self-esteem. The approval of others, whether in person or through social media, makes us feel good about ourselves. Lastly, social media provides a sense of anticipation and discovery. This last component may provide the most “addictive” part of social media.
This sense of anticipation, the seeking of pleasure and feedback, is built into social media. When posting something, many have the accompanying desire that others will see it and comment positively (“like” it). The natural reaction is to be curious about and anticipate reactions of those to whom you are closest. Hence, users seek pleasure when alerts sound on their smartphones.
Is social media activity inherently unhealthy? Certainly not. We are all social creatures created to be in relationships and to interact with others. However, it is in our nature to do this in person. Social media allows us total control of the what, where, and when of our lives that we present to others, allowing us to select only what we think others will like and to hold back what we think others will dislike. In other words, we can more easily present a false self that would be difficult to project in person.
What is the problem with this? First, it breeds insecurity and a false sense of what the world is really like. When you interact with others in person, you learn to cope with both disapproval and acceptance, despite mistakes and imperfections, and you learn from that social feedback. You also discover that healthy relationships, skills, and accomplishments take time and effort, and you see and learn to cope with others’ shortcomings as well. The ability to highlight the positive and hide the negative can lead to thoughts such as “What would happen if they really knew?” It also sets up an unrealistic portrayal of life based on the guarded information others are sharing.
Also, in a virtual world, success can seem too easy. When it does not happen in reality, it can lead to a deeper sense of insecurity and dissatisfaction with relationships and work life. These unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment in social relationships, in job satisfaction, and in career development. The overly positive world presented in social media then leads you to hide your disappointment and to present a side of you that others will “like” or approve of. When social media becomes a major source of pleasure and reinforcement (over real life), this can lead to excessive seeking of reinforcement in the virtual world.
Substituting social media interaction for in-person social interaction can be unhealthy. Researchers Holly Shakya at the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis of Yale University recently published a study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The two explained their conclusion in an April issue of Harvard Business Review: “Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being.” Thus, the more people use Facebook, the less healthy and satisfied with their lives they are likely to be. These researchers monitored mental and physical health, social lives, and Facebook use with more than 5,000 adults during a two-year period. They asked questions about the frequency of getting together with friends, life satisfaction, and physical and mental health.
The findings indicate that above-average Facebook use — defined as one hour per day of updating your status, “liking” posts of others, and clicking links — was associated with an increased likelihood of dissatisfaction and mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. In fact, the more that Facebook use exceeds average, the greater the risks. Their study, matched by many other previous studies, found a positive correlation between real world social contact and better all-around physical and psychological health.
Who is at risk for excessive use of social media? Some would suggest it is predominantly Generation Z and the millennial generation. Yet, just as not all baby boomers are the same, neither are these younger generations. However, most Generation Z children and millennials were exposed to the internet in their developmental years. They were using social media at a time of discovering a sense of who they are, what the world is like, and how relationships work. Has the use of social media given some in this generation unrealistic expectations for the world of work and social relationships?
Research is consistently suggesting that if you want to experience satisfaction in your personal relationship and in your career, limit your social media use. Think of social media use as adding to one’s already healthy social interactions. While social media can be a way to communicate and share your life with those you are already connected to or who live far away, I would caution using it as your primary way of connecting with others or as a primary source of news in the world.
Also, be careful not to turn to social media use to feel better when your social life or job is difficult. While social media can augment your life and relationships, it is unhealthy when it becomes a substitute for real life relationships since use of social media to cope with life’s difficulties can lead to an addiction. As is the case with so many things, moderation is key; maybe all of us would benefit from “disconnecting” from time to time. Or more simply said, put the phone down and talk to someone.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies.