Complex Made Simple

Dopamine at the center of our social media addiction, health decline

88% of people across the UAE are changing their attitude towards social media, due to its potential negative impact on mental health.  AMEinfo looks at why this is

Social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol Dopamine is a naturally-occurring “feel-good” chemical that triggers our inner rewards system At the start of 2021, there were about 4.33 billion social media users around the world

According to a new Kaspersky study, 88% of people across the UAE are changing their attitude towards social media, due to its potential negative impact on mental health.  

Kaspersky has partnered with Neil Tranter, a mindfulness teacher, to develop a dedicated meditation course: “Overcoming digital stress and smartphone addiction,” that provides users with tools to help navigate their digital lives more mindfully.

31% of respondents don’t feel that they are in control and are unaware of their social media limits. 55% experience negative emotions, which are considered as a primary contributor to increased levels of stress and anxiety.

People are already taking proactive steps to develop healthier digital habits, with 35% of respondents saying they limit or reduce their time spent on social media. Another important trend that is growing is the use of meditation apps.

According to Insight Timer, a free meditation app for a community of 19 million, app downloads increased by 100% worldwide in March 2020, and, by the end of the year, meditation minutes had increased over 30% from the year before to 6 billion.

Addiction levels

Research conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) says social media has been described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol.

91% of 16 to 24-year-olds use the internet for social networking and rates of anxiety and depression in young people rose 70% in the past 25 years, as has poor sleep.

There is also evidence to suggest social media usage leads to body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem.

Anna Lembke MD, a psychiatry professor and Chief of the Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University,cexplains how social media creates a dopamine deficit in our brains.

“Social media is basically a way to drugify human connection,” Lembke told Teen Vogue. “We’ve evolved over millions of years to want to connect with people because it helps us protect ourselves from predators, use scarce resources, and find a mate. One of the ways our brain gets us to make those connections is to release dopamine.”

Dopamine is a naturally-occurring “feel-good” chemical that triggers our inner rewards system. Social media mimics human connections, prompting dopamine release when we get likes and comments. Lembke says the “bottomless bowl” of social media, where we see flashing lights, rankings, and beautiful images of other people all with minimal effort makes the brain release more dopamine than it would with a typical real-life interaction. That, she says, is why it has the potential to be like a drug.

Things that are addictive release a lot more dopamine in the brain,” she said.

The more we activate that intense pleasure response on social media, Lembke says, the more we crave it. But the repetitive action becomes less exciting and we end up needing more to give us the same pleasure we experienced with a lesser amount before.  

That’s when, Lembke says, we enter a dopamine deficit, and create less pleasurable experiences with the very thing that made us happy: Social media. 

You might be able to tell you’re in a dopamine deficit state, Lembke said, when you’re scrolling through social media and you feel like you can’t stop. It doesn’t necessarily feel good, and you aren’t getting anything from your actions, but you just keep scrolling. When we’re in a dopamine deficit, Lembke said it can feel similar to depression and anxiety.

For his part, Tristan Harris, Co-Founder and President of the Center for Humane Technology, noted that social media didn’t start bad, but rather it was weaponized later to exploit our vulnerabilities for financial gain. He mentioned Justin Rosenstein, who helped create the Facebook “Like” button. Now, likes are part of the gamification and ranking aspect of social media that makes it addictive.

There are examples of technology that help foster connection without the high-risk angle, he said and named FaceTime, which Harris said does not come with endless-scroll options, has no emojis flying in the corner, or real-time comments flooding in. It’s a way to have a face-to-face connection through technology, and when you’re done, there’s no mechanism trying to keep you there for profit. Instead, you pay for the tech that delivers it, meaning you are a customer utilizing a service and not the other way around.

Global social media usage

According to insights website Datareportal, at the start of 2021, there were about 4.33 billion social media users around the world. 521 million new users had jumped on the bandwagon until April 2021. Analysts now say 70% of the eligible global population uses some form of social media. That means nearly 3/4th of the world is on their phones liking, commenting, raving, ranting, and sharing their lives away.