9:17 a.m. Cozied up in my bed like a cocoon with my duvet, I opened my eyes to be blinded by the sun. I rolled over and grabbed my favourite device. I pressed the power button and my phone lit up with life. Its brightness caused me to squint as I tapped the four numbers that would unlock a very familiar world to me. But that world was going to disappear. I held down on each app until it started shaking like an earthquake and then, I pressed the little x icons. Goodbye “tap to like” Instagram, Snapchat geofilters, retweets on Twitter and statuses on Facebook. I was quitting cold turkey. Mere seconds later, I found myself still alive and breathing without the apps. I continued on with my day but after four hours of binge watching The O.C., my fingers found their way to the app store as if they were on a mission. Within seconds, I was once again staring at the four apps I had deleted. I was frustrated and disappointed. Why couldn’t I give up social media for a day?
Social media has been a part of my life since I was 14 years old when my mother finally allowed me to get Facebook. Two years late (everyone was already over the Facebook trend) but I was still happy. I could finally post statuses and see what my friends were up to. One by one, “friends” were added. A few months later, my mother gave me permission to start a Twitter account. And so, the daily scrolls, likes and retweets commenced. Then, Instagram and Snapchat came next. According to PEW research center, 90% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 use social media. 59% of Instagram users and 27% of Pinterest users visit these social media sites/apps daily along with 43% of Facebook users who log on several times a day. How can so many people be caught up in this world that does not even solely focus on their own lives? Simple. It’s neuroscience. Our brains like it.
According to a study conducted by Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist, going on social media can alter the levels of oxytocin in our brains. Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone, known as the love hormone, which produces feelings of love and satisfaction. Going on social media can raise your oxytocin levels by as much as 13.2%. Picture it as the happiness you felt or will feel on your wedding day. Yeah, the release of the oxytocin can be equivalent to the hormonal spike of marrying the person you love. A test subject of Dr. Zak’s, Adam Penenberg, experienced a decrease in the stress hormones cortisol and ACTH by 10.8% and 14.9%, respectively. The release of oxytocin Penenberg experienced while tweeting reduced his stress hormones which might reduce cardiovascular risks, like heart attack and stroke. “[His] brain interpreted tweeting as if [he] were directly interacting with people [he] cared about or had empathy for,” Zak said (Penenberg). Using social media actually produces a calming, soothing and pleasurable effect that is chemically measurable in the brain. It’s like lounging on a beach chair with the strong UV rays hitting your skin while you admire the beautiful turquoise ocean before you and sip on a delicious pina colada. With higher levels of oxytocin in the body from using social media, people become more reciprocal and generous. It’s why we hit that “Share”, “like” or “Retweet” button. It becomes a cycle that promotes the use of these platforms, makes us feel good and makes us use them all day (Shadbolt). It’s like a drug that we possibly get can’t enough of. It takes over our lives like the pictures that take over our timelines. Not only does my brain chemically feel good when I double tap someone’s Instagram picture but so does that person’s.
A team of researchers led by Dar Meshi studied the use of social media and brain imaging data. Their findings explain why we post on Facebook. The study observed that a region in our brains called the nucleus accumbens, which allows us to have rewarding feelings about food, sex, money and social acceptance, became more active while on social media. We get pleasure out of someone liking our latest status. It’s no wonder we’re all obsessed. This form of social affirmation becomes addictive. It is like having a conversation with someone and each time you speak, they agree with everything you said. People approve and so we are inclined to continue to do what we’re doing.
Furthermore, a recent study shows that the more time people spent on Facebook, the more they believed that others were happier and generally had better lives than them (Stronge). In fact, for me, this is definitely the case. I can spend hours looking at pretty models posing on beaches while I’m at home lying in bed with a bag of popcorn and a chocolate bar. I’m not cliff jumping or swimming with stingrays on a tropical island.
The most likely scenario is I’m spending Saturday night in bed watching Netflix after a long day of studying. Comparing my lives to those on social media definitely make my life seem so unadventurous and uneventful. I experience so much FOMO that I miss out on what is actually happening in my own life like hearing my friend tell me her latest boyfriend fiasco or being present at dinner with my friends. You can even find me (and I’m sure many others) scrolling through Instagram or snapchatting in the club.
Social comparison is quite common on social media (hence the social part). The social comparison theory states that we determine our self-worth (social and personal) by comparing ourselves to others. We compare our attractiveness, wealth, success and intelligence to others to boost our self-esteem or in some cases, lower it. According to Susan Finch, a psychology teacher at Dawson College, “at a certain age, how you compare to others is so much more important than at a different age. A fourteen year old is very concerned with how they compare so they may feel more addicted. A thirty-four year old may be less bothered by how they compared”. At 18 years old, you’re still figuring out who you are and using social media to compare yourself to others can be detrimental. All it takes is someone’s cute, flawless selfie for you to feel insecure.
What we perceive on these sites isn’t always true. Last year, Essena O’Neill, an Instagram model, quit social media because it had created this false image of who she really was. She changed all her Instagram captions to explain what really went behind the scenes of her pictures where she looked “perfect”. Though her Instagram account is no longer active, she posted pictures that were strategically taken to show her toned body and the many clothing items she was paid to advertise. Her Instagram was all a lie.
Essena O’Neill spent countless hours trying to get the right picture until finding the right one that would gain the interest she needed and the likes she wanted. Clinging to these ideas of perfection from Instagram lowers my self-esteem when, in some cases, what I am seeing isn’t even true.
A study found that people on Facebook create their ideal selves and the image of a more positive life than reality on this platform (Stronge). We share what we want people to see instead of reality. It’s like posting that selfie you took when you had a good hair day instead of posting that picture you took three weeks ago with the biggest pimple on your forehead to show your friend. When I asked Ms. Finch about the human nature to share on social media, she said, “we do like to flaunt ourselves, put ourselves forward and post the best picture and the best selfie. We like to share because we think we have something important to contribute … we’re just sharing the positive stuff, which reinforces how we feel about ourselves.” We like to talk about ourselves. No doubt about that and we devote approximately 30%-40% of all our speech about ourselves. Online, this percentage increases to about 80%. It’s just like saying “me, me, me, oh me again and wait, me with my best friend” all over your Twitter account. Similarly, 62% of people said they feel better about themselves when others reacted positively to what they posted on social media. We need social media to share the good things in our life and receive positive feedback on it. Many people are guilty of posting those “workout” photos when they haven’t even broken a sweat in their workout gear just to show they’re “fit”. Stina Sanders, a London-based model, started posting real pictures on Instagram and as a consequence, she lost thousands of followers. She shared pictures that weren’t glamorous but instead, portrayed real life. Rather than creating a perfect life through her social media, she showed the world her real life like removing her moustache and getting a colonoscopy.
Finding the balance between real life and social media can sometimes be difficult.
Addiction does not only encompass drugs and alcohol. It’s the condition that results when we engage in a pleasurable activity, which eventually becomes detrimental to our lives by consuming too much of our time. When I asked Ms. Finch about addiction, she explained the mechanism behind it. “The main idea would be about your dopamine receptors and that when you get a burst of dopamine, it makes you feel good…I take something to make myself feel better”, she said. It’s like when you start eating that tiny sliver of double chocolate cake that you’ve been craving and somehow find yourself with an empty plate of crumbs in front of you an hour later. You can’t stop, even though you know that the entire cake contains your daily caloric intake. The same thing applies to social media. We go on Facebook because we release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. A neurotransmitter is a chemical that is released from a nerve cell in order to transmit an impulse from that nerve cell to another nerve, muscle, organ or tissue. It’s your brain’s messenger and according to studies conducted, the release of dopamine is so strong that tweeting is harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol. It’s become an actual addiction.
This addiction isn’t one-sided. We’re guilty of continuously using these sites but who’s the one providing us with new features and content? Facebook and other sites use algorithmic filtering to make their platforms addictive. Algorithmic filtering is the concept of an algorithm that decides what content you see and where it appears in your timeline. They tweak them to see if the changes they have made kept their users on the site for longer or increased their engagement. An algorithm is like a recipe. It’s a set of instructions to solve a problem in a finite number of steps or accomplish something on a computer. What they do is similar to making those perfect mouth-watering gooey brownies. You keep adjusting the recipe until you finally get that chocolatey goodness you love and can devour in one night. Facebook uses an addiction algorithm which explains why the site gets more than a billion users a day (Elgan). Remember that big freak out over Twitter rearranging your timeline according to an algorithm? Yeah, they were just trying to make it more addictive. Thank god our timelines are still in chronological order. A survey conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois demonstrated that 60% of Facebook users did not realize that this platform filters their feed. If the algorithms are tweaked everyday, there’s a chance that social media becomes more addictive (Elgan).
Now, imagine you’ve dreamt about attending your favourite singer’s concert every single day of your life. You start a countdown on your phone, checking each day to see how many minutes remain until you can breathe the same air as them. And finally, the day has arrived. You are ecstatic to be in the same room as them. You’re dressed in your best clothes that you picked out a week ago and you’re ready to sing so loudly that you’ll lose your voice by the end of the night. Three, two, one… They rise onto the stage and the crowd roars like a race car revving up its engine. Holy $%&#! You grab your phone and quickly start filming. You send a snap to your friend green with envy. But, you don’t stop there. You keep taking videos for your Snapchat story. OMG, that video is so insta-worthy. Soon enough, that annoying “Cannot Take Photo” message pops up because you don’t have enough storage. Darn, you’re going to miss the finale. “Thank you so much for an amazing night! You guys rock”, they say as they run off the stage. You missed the entire concert because you were too busy posting and now, it’s over. You realize that instead of experiencing the concert in the moment, the only memory you now have is on the pixelated screen of your phone that’s no bigger than your hand.
Being eager to get on social media does not mean it will disappear. Those posts will still be up when I go on four hours later. It makes no difference and returning to that shameful day when temptation got the best of me made me realize it. Giving up social media that day did not seem possible for me but then again, what pulled me into redownloading the apps? Maybe, it’s because I use these platforms to connect with my friends and family who live far away or it’s because I learn about current events. Either way, there are so many reasons. I’ve realized just how much time I’ve spent on these sites. So much of that time could’ve been spent studying or taking a nice walk outside. Sometimes, it’s hard to not let some things consume our lives.