13 Sep 2022

Likes, Shares and Dopamine: The Science of Social Media

Technology and social media offer us a wealth of opportunities, connections, and knowledge – but what does using social media means for our private data, and also for our wellbeing?

In the first of three articles discussing the impacts of social media on our mental health, author Josh Roberts explores the neuroscience of scrolling.

Five years ago, I had a mental breakdown. I was twenty-six at the time and it all happened terribly suddenly. One day I was a chirpy, cheery, seemingly successful Strategy Consultant; the next I was a hot mess of worry and tears. Eventually, after lots of visits to A&E and hours spent sitting in front of psychiatrists with furrowed brows, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – a mental health problem defined by the NHS as “a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues”.

I’ve written elsewhere about my experience of breaking down, scraping along the bottom and then, finally, getting better. But suffice to say it was an unrelentingly bleak eighteen months during which I slept little, cried lots and thought often about suicide. Hardly an episode of Friends, I’ll admit.

As you might imagine, in the years since everything went pear-shaped, I’ve spent lots of time trying to understand mental health problems – where they come from, why they happen and what we can do about them. It’s been a fascinating, if somewhat frustrating, learning process. Because, unlike lots of physical health conditions, much of the research into mental health isn’t yet conclusive. It isn’t the scientists’ fault – studying mental health problems and discerning the directions of causation is extremely tricky. Is someone stressed because they have anxiety, or do they have anxiety because they’re stressed? Does insomnia cause depression, or does depression cause insomnia? And so on.

There are, however, a few areas where the scientists agree. We know, for example, that excessive alcohol or drug taking is a contributory factor to mental ill-health. We know that unresolved trauma in childhood often predicts challenges in later life. We know that our personal relationships and careers play large roles in our overall mental health. And we know that the consumption of social media is almost always bad news for our mental health.

Whilst researching my book, Anxious Man, I was able to explore each of these ‘causes’ in great detail. But the one which continues to intrigue and perplex me the most is that last one – social media. In particular, I’m drawn to the neuroscience of social media, how it affects our brains and wellbeing, and what – if anything – we can do about that.

How social media companies exploit the dopamine dilemma

It seems obvious to the point of banality to say that, as a society, we’re addicted to social media. But we are. We really, really are. The statistics here are mind blowing – in 2020 the average Briton spent 1.8 hours a day, or over 650 hours a year, or a total of 27 days on social media. In other words, we lost time equivalent to the entire month of February to scrolling.

All of which is both shocking and yet not at all surprising. Because once you start poking into the neuroscience of social media you very quickly come to see how it is perfectly constructed to breed addiction. Indeed, even the social media bosses themselves admit that building dependence is core to their business models. “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” said Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook, in an article for The Guardian.

The mechanism through which this addiction works is related to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Once referred to as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules” because of its notoriety, dopamine is one of several brain chemicals associated with reward, motivation and behaviour. It’s what gets released in our brains when we go running or swimming, or when we have sex, or when we eat a great meal. And over time, through a process that neuroscientists call “long-term potentiation”, the release of dopamine is what builds habit. It’s the body’s way of saying “you did the right thing – do more of it”.

This is fine if we’re talking about habitualising good habits like exercise or eating. It’s more problematic with habits like social media, however, which rather than contributing to good health are, in my opinion, hugely detrimental to our wellbeing. Every time we get a Like, Share or Notification our brains are flooded with dopamine; and in a matter of weeks, the act of checking and scrolling our phones becomes second nature. Even though, in the conscious part of our brains, we know that it makes us unhappy. Which, to be clear, it does – the more we consume social media, the lower our mood and self-esteem, the higher our anxiety and worse our sleep.

The depth in which social media companies understand and harness dopamine goes beyond simply targeting its release in our brains. For example, the study of gamblers in casinos clearly shows that random rewards (and their associated dopamine releases) are always more powerful for building habits than regular ones. Apps like Instagram and Facebook utilise the power of “variable reward schedules” in choosing when and what they notify you about.

Not knowing when your phone is going to flash, compels you to check it both when it does  (“something’s happened…I should check”) and when it doesn’t (“I don’t have a notification; but something still could have happened…I should check”). “Gambling is addictive because you don’t know how many bets you will have to make before you win”, says Professor Dar Meshi of Michigan State University. “When you check your social media, you cannot predict whether you received feedback or not”.

Of course, I know that all of this sounds a bit conspiratorial – the sort of thing you expect from some wacko YouTuber, in a tin foil hat. But it really is true. Companies like Facebook, Snap and Bytedance have invested tens of millions of dollars into understanding the biology and psychology behind the way our brains work, and how best to ‘exploit human vulnerability’, according to ex-Facebook president Sean Parker. And they do this despite a mountain of evidence suggesting that their products are really, desperately bad for our mental health.

“I feel tremendous guilt”, said Chamath Palihapitiya (a former Facebook big wig). “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works”.

I couldn’t agree more.

To read part two in our series on the effects of social media and your mental health. Click here.

This article is written by an external expert as part of Schillings’Accept All: Unacceptablecampaign. The opinions, comments and views included in it do not in any way represent those of Schillings.