Most teens spend their days attached to their phones, the pull of social media so strong they can’t look away. In fact, in the documentary “Screenagers,” researchers explain that the average American teen spends more time on electronic media than they do going to school. Scientists, educators, and parents are not only concerned by the amount of time teens spend online, but also about the impact this screen time has on the brain. Researchers have discovered that social media, in particular, has a far greater effect on the brain than one might imagine.
Neuroeconomist Paul Zak discovered that the brain releases the feel-good chemical oxytocin when we use social media. (Levels can rise as much as 13%) Katina Michael, Associate Professor at the University of Wollongong’s Schools of Information Systems and Technology said that the “internet gives us more of a dopamine kick than having chocolate, than having sex, than achieving high results, than winning a medal.” She explained “people get more of a fix from friends or even strangers ‘liking’ them, than the person sitting next to them in bed with a similar device.” She went on the say that “we have this virtual space filled with millions of people and yet we don’t feel accepted…because we don’t have that physical intimacy.” We look to social media to feel good about ourselves and experience euphoria, but these feelings don’t last long.
The power of the “like” is so significant, that it has altered the way we use/look at social media. In one study at the UCLA branch of the Children’s Digital Media Center, teenagers, ages 13-18, were told they were experimenting on a social media network similar to Instagram. Lauren Sherman, one of the researchers, explained that when teens saw that their own photos had several likes, there was significant activity across the nucleus accumbens (the reward center of the brain), and regions linked to visual attention were activated. When deciding whether or not to like a photo, the teens were influenced by the number of likes the photo already had.
The researchers showed a photo with a lot of likes to half the group, and the same photo with just a few likes was shown to the other half. The teens were more likely to “like” the photo with more likes. The researchers did another study where the teenagers viewed “neutral” photos (pictures of food and friends) and “risky photos” (cigarettes, alcohol, teens wearing provocative clothing). Patricia Greenfield, a UCLA professor of psychology, said that, “For all types of photographs-neutral, risky and even their own-the teens were more likely to click life if more people had liked them than if fewer people had liked them…shows the importance of peer approval.” We “like” to maintain relationships (reinforce closeness). We also “like” to create a reciprocity effect. In other words, we feel the need to give back to people who have given to us. For example, when we receive a snapchat, we feel compelled to send one back.
Rameet Chawla, a programmer, created a bot that would automatically “like” every single picture that every single person he followed posted. As a result, he became extremely popular on Instagram. He concluded that people “give too much value to the like” and that “people are becoming addicted”. When we don’t use social media, we experience “withdrawals”. Social media has become a type of “drug” and “getting just one hit elicits truly peculiar reactions.” A social media addict has an obsessive compulsion to check social media- sometimes for hours on end.
If the pull of social media is this addictive and enticing as chocolate, and maybe even sex, the question remains, how can teens find ways to disconnect from their devices?