Which social media networks reward their contributors

The social dilemma : How social networks are addicting

Berlin - What are the social networks doing with our society? What power do Facebook, Instagram and Co. have on our psychology? Jeff Orlowski's documentary “The Social Dilemma”, which starts on Wednesday, September 9th, on Netflix, deals with these questions.

More and more researchers are investigating possible connections between mental illness and the use of social networks. From a biological point of view, they cause measurable changes in our brain.

The year is 2020, 59 percent of the world's population has access to the Internet and 49 percent are active users of social networks. That's 3.8 billion people who scroll, swipe, like and comment every day - an average of 144 minutes a day. Social networks make it possible to connect with people all over the world, to exchange ideas, to get information, to share ideas and to draw attention to grievances, like most recently with the # BlackLivesMatter movement. They are an integral part of our modern information society and can no longer be imagined without them. At the same time, more and more young people are suffering from depression and other psychological stress.

The psychology professor Jean Twenge of the San Diego State University sees a connection between such stresses and the social networks, which would intensify the feelings of fear of missing out (FOMO), loneliness and insomnia. The study “Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development” by the US health authority NIH examines whether and how social networks influence the development of children. It accompanies around 12,000 children over ten years of age and carries out ongoing psychological and neurological tests.

The cause of our tendency to spend hours in front of our smartphones and tablets is due to the sophisticated algorithms of the big technology companies that were designed with one goal in mind: to maximize our attention. One of the leading critical voices in Silicon Valley who clearly speaks out against “Big Tech” is former Google employee Tristan Harris. In “The Social Dilemma” he reports that many users are not aware that “entire teams of developers are working to use their psychology against you”. Facebook, Google and Co. are in a “war for attention”, competing to see who can get users to look at content - and thus advertising at the same time - the longest.

And the strategy works: According to a study by Gallup, 52 percent of all American smartphone users between 18 and 29 look at their cell phones several times an hour. One in five even admitted to checking their smartphone every few minutes. A whole generation fixated on the cell phone? Jaron Lanier, one of the leading developers in the field of virtual reality, speaks of "algorithms (...) that fuel addiction in people". When Tristan Harris speaks of "racing to the end of the brain stem" he is referring to one of the most basic and primitive processes in our brain: the dopamine system.

Our brain consists mainly of nerve cells, the so-called neurons. These communicate via chemical messengers, so-called neurotransmitters. They enable interaction between different brain areas that are involved in different functions. The neurotransmitter dopamine ensures the sensation of pleasure and reward in the brain and follows a certain path, the mesolimbic system.

Imagine the brain as a network of information superhighways that connect areas of the brain for more efficient information transport. The mesolimbic system is active when it comes to pleasure and habit formation, such as eating, sex, and social interactions. So what happens when we get a new notification on our smartphone? See a red icon flashing? Discover new likes, comments or messages? Dopamine is immediately released in an area of ​​the midbrain known as the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA).

Dopamine is passed on to the amygdala via the aforementioned neurotransmitter highways. This is responsible for strong emotional reactions such as fear and pleasure. The connection to the hippocampus, in which memories arise, leads us to remember the situations in which we released a lot of dopamine.

In addition, the VTA is connected to the Nucleus Accumbens (NAcc), which is involved in motor processes - for example tapping with a finger or swiping down to update. These associations between different brain areas and our memories reinforce our need to repeat our behavior. With every like our brain is preprogrammed more efficiently - we are integrated into a so-called forced loop. Evolutionarily, this mechanism has ensured our survival - the pleasure of food in order not to starve, or sex to reproduce. However, it can have adverse effects, as is the case with addiction problems.

Interestingly, apps like Instagram and TikTok, which are supposed to attract our attention, have a similar effect on our brain as cocaine and amphetamines, for example, which also lead to the release of dopamine. In addition, dopamine is not only released after a reward, but also before it, in the period in which we expect a reward based on previous experience.

Slot machines are designed to show wheels spinning for a few seconds to release dopamine in mere response to anticipation. The same thing happens when our smartphone vibrates and, driven by our dopamine greed, we expect a small reward in the form of a message or an email. App developers and user experience designers are aware of these neurobiological principles.

Jaron Lanier speaks of a "feedback loop for social validation (...) that exploits a weak point in human psychology" - and he gets to the point. The long-term effects of social networks on the brain, especially among young people, are elusive. So: put your smartphone aside more often!

The author is a neuroscientist and lives in Berlin.

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