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It’s there, you can feel it.   It might be the “ding” from your smartphone, the little blue “f” on the top status bar, or the red dot over the globe in the right corner of your screen. You feel compelled to check and see. Someone might have said something interesting!   This experience looks different in your brain. That little notification just caused your dopamine levels to rise just a bit in anticipation because that’s what dopamine does. It doesn’t exactly trigger pleasure, but it does fire up the neurotransmitter receptors in your brain to be ready for pleasure. Among other things, dopamine is the anticipation neurotransmitter.  

Dopamine and Why You Like Social Media

  Dopamine has been in the news a lot lately over the last several years. It has been demonized as the “addictive neurotransmitter.” Dopamine is responsible for a lot of who you are and what you do, so it isn’t as simple as that, but it does have a part in why you like Facebook.   If you are hoping something good will happen, your brain is releasing dopamine. It tells your brain “Hey, pay attention! Something good could happen!”   Dopamine levels rise when:
  • You buy a pillow that will look great on your couch.
  • When someone you admire comes in the room.
  • When you buy a lottery ticket.
  • When your favorite sports team is about to win.
  • When you learn something new.
What about Facebook?   In a 2017 interview with Axios, Sean Parker, co-founder of Facebook stated that the thought process that goes into social media is about consuming as much of your time and attention as possible.   “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.”   With each status update, you are encouraged to continue to participate–to write another post, to reply to a comment, to keep reading. The creators of Facebook purposely designed it to continually provide a small dopamine surge so that you stay on Facebook.   These three guys designed a positive reinforcement feedback loop using your own brain as the reward. They continue to work off this principle, and they do a very good job at it.  

How positive reinforcement works

  Positive reinforcement is a term that describes the process of ensuring a behavior will repeat itself through the use of rewards. Training a dog is a good example. An “A” on your paper is another.  We are surrounded by things that constantly reinforce behaviors. You do X, you get Y.   For human beings, positive social interaction also is a reward. We have learned that on the other side of the red notification dot is a funny meme, an interesting article, or a friend sharing their day.

Meanwhile, in the brain…

  Let’s say you are training your dog to sit. You tell your dog to sit, but the dog doesn’t know what “sit” means. So you put the dog in sitting position and then give the dog a chicken treat. The dog thinks “Oh boy, chicken treats are involved! Woohoo!” Then you tell the dog to sit again. The dog wags his tail but still looks puzzled. Still, he’s thinking “Okay, we just did this, I’m still not sure what’s going on and it ended with a chicken treat.” The dog thinks there is a high possibility of pleasure at the end. The dog’s brain releases some dopamine into the neuronal synapses. But the dog still hasn’t made the connection, so you put the dog in sitting position again and give him the chicken treat.  The dog is liking this — the dopamine has made his brain ripe for the glutamate that is associated with the pleasure of the treat. Dopamine has also made the dog calmer and more receptive to information.  So the third time you say “sit,” the dog may ponder things for a minute and then plop his butt on the floor. He’s testing a theory and you reward it by giving him an awesome chicken treat and praising him. Then you do it again. The command causes dopamine release in the brain, and the dog sits. Then, the brain releases glutamate at the pleasure of ANOTHER fabulous chicken treat.

This applies to you, too.

And you (believe it or not) are also getting a dopamine surge in your brain when you are anticipating that the dog will understand “sit” means “plop your butt on the floor.”  When he does, you get the glutamate, too. You guys are bonding. Pleasure means good feelings about your dog and how clever he is and what a great dog trainer you are. But when you stop, the dog says “Hey…another chicken treat, PLEASE?” and then realizes that no more are coming, so he goes and pesters the cat and t#0074e8  

Back to Facebook

The interesting thing about positive reinforcement is that it’s even more powerful when we don’t get a reward EVERY time we perform a task. When we get a reward every time, we quickly stop performing the behavior when the rewards stop. The behavior extinguishes.   But if we don’t know when the reward will come but are pretty sure it will, we will keep engaging in a behavior for a long time before we give up; and when we do get the reward, oh boy, we are SO happy. That’s why consistent discipline is important with kids or dogs — if they don’t know when they will get their way, they’ll keep being obnoxious until they do. It’s also how Facebook works. Sometimes the notification is for something that doesn’t interest you — a snapshot of Barb’s lunch, Joe’s progress in the latest Candy Crush Saga knockoff, or a comment that ticks you off.  These posts give your brain a quick break so that your brain can have an even stronger reaction to the next good post that will make you laugh, empathize, or learn something.  

This Isn’t All Bad or Even Mostly Bad — It Just Is

  Keep in mind, this isn’t bad in and of itself. If this anticipation/pleasure loop didn’t happen, then we probably would just die. We wouldn’t seek out things that are good for us like food, sex, sleep, or society. We wouldn’t find pleasure in those things.   In fact, that’s a fairly simple definition of depression. That anticipation/pleasure loop isn’t happening because the brain, for one reason or another, isn’t interacting with the neurotransmitters that cause anticipation and pleasure the way it should.   Facebook is a great tool that helps us share ideas and interact with people we care about when other means are more difficult. It also helps us meet people who can enrich our lives even though we have never met them. This same loop is happening with most other pleasant social interactions. Social media engineers these interactions.   Social media (or anything) is harmful is when it interferes with your ability to lead your life. Absorbing yourself in social media at the expense of other people and things we should care about and bringing pain to those who care for us is a key characteristic of an addiction.   On a lesser level, since Facebook, email, and other internet things trigger these reactions in your brain, it’s important to be aware that this is on purpose. Facebook wants your attention. Most people aren’t truly addicted, but it also still can keep you from getting things done that you would really like to do.  

Modulation and Moderation: What You Can Do

  Recommendations for how to keep Facebook usage under control are all over the internet. Here are some things you can do. Schedule time for checking social media and email — instead of constantly responding to the notification as it happens, set a time of day or a few times of day to hop online. Even set it up as a reward: If you work for a set period of time, you get a bit of time on Facebook. Just keep in mind the time limit that you set.  
  1. When you need to do something, close the Facebook tab and put your phone someplace close, but out of hand’s reach.
  2. Turn off all but important notifications. You’ve been conditioned to jump at the ding, the buzz, or the little red dot.
  3. Consider using an app that blocks social media and email for a period of time.
  If you are coming to realize that it is a bigger problem, and you might be addicted, talk with a therapist or an addictions counselor. When addiction is a factor, there are often other issues running alongside and identifying those and dealing with them can help bring everything else into balance. ——- Sources: Addiction.com staff (2013). The effects of process addictions. https://www.addiction.com/3444/effects-process-addiction/. Viewed on 1/17/2018. Allen, M (2017). Sean Parker unloads on Facebook: “God only knows what we are doing to our children’s brains.” Axios, November 9, 2017. https://www.axios.com/sean-parker-unloads-on-facebook-god-only-knows-what-its-doing-to-our-childrens-brains-1513306792-f855e7b4-4e99-4d60-8d51-2775559c2671.html Grant, J., Potenza, M., Weinstein, A., Gorlick, D (2010). Introduction to behavioral addictions. American Journal of Drug Abuse. 36(5):233-241. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/00952990.2010.491884. Viewed on 1/17/2018. Ley, D (2017). No dopamine is not addictive: Please stop calling dopamine a rewarding addictive neurochemical. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-who-stray/201701/no-dopamine-is-not-addictive. Viewed 1/17/2018 ©Copyright, Lora Horn 2018. Cannot be used without author’s permission.