Meet dopamine, the neurotransmitter in your brain, which when released gives way to feelings of euphoria and pleasantness. Dopamine lives in the pleasure/reward center of the brain. Studies have shown that each time a text or email is received, dopamine is released. The more texts we receive, the more dopamine released, and the more we feel good. But this only lasts for a brief period of time. Similarly, when someone likes your post or you get a new follower, dopamine is released. Why? Because this is a form of instant gratification. Our brain processes it as pleasurable and releases dopamine. Hence, people continuously log onto social media because they want to experience a “dopamine high.” A recent Harvard study revealed using addictive substances, gambling, and receiving notifications on social media, all activate the same section of the brain- the orbitofrontal cortex.
Psychologists contribute these dopamine highs to a theory known as random or intermittent reinforcement; a conditioning schedule in which a reward or punishment does not happen every time a desirable behavior occurs. When you randomly gain a like or follow, dopamine is released. There is no predictability as to when this will happen. In a sense, it’s like a slot machine at a casino. You don’t know what the outcome will be, you pull the lever and the rest is up to chance. If you win, your brain becomes flooded with dopamine. This unpredictability of rewards, incentivizes you to revisit the slot machine time after time.
The same can be said of social media.You log on for a burst of instant gratification, but it’s a gambler’s game whether or not your post will get engagements. Similar to the slot machine, the lack of consistency in rewards aggravates the user enough to revisit the platform multiple times. Hence, it becomes addictive. Neuroscientists have stated the brain literally rewires itself to desire more likes, follows, and tweets as a result. A research scientist from USC commented that using these social media apps is like drugging ourselves; we get carried away by the dopamine high, and it becomes hypnotic. When it becomes severe enough, this social media addiction can cause depression and anxiety. Some psychologists argue this is partially due to the lack of sleep social media users get, along with negatively comparing oneself to other social media users.
A prime example of this is TikTok, a video sharing app in which users lip-sync, dance, and create other comical content synced to music audios. These short, loop-style videos have a duration of up to a minute. The app has given people a new way to express their creativity. According to Forbes magazine, it has“taken what people have learned from successful advertisements, and given creativity to the masses”. In fact, Ocean Spray cranberry juice recently released a tv commercial, consisting solely of TikToks; the users posted videos of themselves drinking their product while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams”.
The platform became incredibly popular during the onset of Covid-19, when everyone was stuck at home. As of this September, there were 800 million TikTok users worldwide, with over 2 billion downloads since the app's birth in 2016. While the company has experienced much success, there is worry that the app is taking a toll on its users physical and mental wellbeing. Even the company has recognized the addictive nature of their app. As a result, little reminder videos pop up on TikTok to let people know they’ve “been scrolling for way too long. One could argue that the addictive nature of the app is due to the infinite scroll setup and the random releases of dopamine a user experiences from using the app. The playback loop could also be a factor.
Study from India
In January of 2020, a study from India was done to measure how social media affected IT employees’ work productivity. The results revealed that those who heavily used social media were: easily distracted from their work, not meeting their deadlines, had a tendency to seek approval, and experienced sleep deprivation, back pain, and eye strain. While this study does have some limitations, the general findings can be applied to student productivity as well.
If students are spending more time on social media than their studies, it’s reasonable to say their grades will fall. Combine the lack of effort with an inability to focus, and you have a perfect storm for procrastination. Tasks that require long periods of focus become more difficult as the result of a shorter attention span. This also ties into the idea of delayed gratification; you have to be patient in studying the materials and taking the exam before being rewarded or punished with your score. With social media it’s the exact opposite: everything is instant. Replies, comments, likes, views, etc. And unless you exit the site or log out, there is no escaping the constant stream of information. It can be hard to unplug.
Thoughts from Instructors
Katey Leverson, psychology instructor at SCTCC teaches her students about the effects social media has on the brain in her course Positive Psychology (PSYC 1350). She explained how research has repeatedly proven that social media has a negative impact on self-esteem and how we view ourselves in comparison to others. The random reinforcements mentioned earlier, triggers the release of dopamine, which can have addictive consequences for using the apps.
“Scrolling has shortened and affected our attention spans and memory processes. Social media companies study and perfect attention-grabbing aspects of their website to promote high levels of engagement.”- Katey Leverson
Also a psychology instructor at SCTCC, Linde Althaus added her thoughts on how social media affects student productivity: “It can be a break or a way to escape, but the difficult thing is putting it down when it's time to get to work. Our brains don't do well with doing them at the same time.” This ties into the idea of multitasking, which contrary to popular belief, makes it harder to be productive. Instead of focusing your attention solely on one thing, you focus your attention on several things, which overall accomplishes less.
Does that mean you have to forgo social media altogether? Not necessarily. Instead, experts suggest a number of ways to manage your time on these apps.
Take a digital detox- log off for a couple of days
Turn off push notifications
Be mindful of time spent on the apps/ limit your time usage
Create physical distance between you and your device
Let go of social media and focus on your priorities
Social media is not all bad. It allows for a level of global connectivity that years ago was not possible. Just be aware of what it does to your brain and the steps you can take to improve your personal, academic, and work life. The last thing you want is to fall behind in work or classes because you’ve been scrolling for way too long.
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