From the minute we wake up till the minute we go to sleep, social media plays a constant and unrelenting role in our lives. Whether it’s refreshing your Instagram feed, watching videos on Facebook or checking Twitter for live updates; it is undeniable that social media has revolutionised the way in which we consume content. The benefits to social media are clear, with its ability to keep people in touch from miles away or its capability of spreading messages with a vast reach no other platform has. However, at what cost? Yougov reported in 2016 that one in four students suffer from mental health with over 70% of those suffering with depression and anxiety. According to research done by Jean M. Twenge and colleagues in 2010, during the rise of the mobile phone there was a correlation between mobile phone overuse, depression and even suicides in adolescents. With this huge surge in anxiety and depression amongst young people its relationship with the evolution of mobile phones cannot be ignored.
So why are we so obsessed with Instagram? Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a common psychological state wherein one worry others are living much higher quality and desirable lives. In a 2017 study of Facebook users, Buglass et al found that FOMO mediates the relationship between increased social media usage and decreased self-esteem with users. Studies showing low self-esteem may motivate a FOMO-induced increased rate of social media net- work usage and an increase in online self-promotion. Essentially, we’re worried others are living better and more fulfilled lives leading us to get online and promote ourselves to give the impression ours are of equal quality. We’re often finding ourselves repeatedly checking our phones throughout the day in search of a new message or notification. This is explained by a phenomenon known as the dopamine loop. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain important in the regulation of reward-motivated
behaviour. It is thought of as the main chemical of pleasure, however, current research shows dopa- mine to be responsible for signalling the value of an outcome and therefore motiving you to do whatever you need to achieve that outcome. This desire to seek can be instantly gratified with the accessibility of interaction at the touch of a button. Want to speak to someone? Watch a video? You can instantly satisfy all this dopamine-induced seeking behaviour with the likes of social media and the internet. The instant reward our phones offer us, induces more seeking action. The cycle of behaviour is why we often find it so hard to put our phones down. Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist who discusses the role of anticipation in the release of dopamine in the brain, with dopamine being released in anticipation of the pleasure. The dopa- mine system is sensitive to cues, such as a notifica- tion alert or message, the acknowledgement that something is about to happen is what increases our dopamine. The anticipation of pleasure is what keeps the loop going, the more unpredictable the result cue, the more dopamine released. This explains why notifications on your phone are so inviting, the anticipation of the reward paired with the unpredictability of the result. In a book written by Leslie Perlow, she reveals that 70% of people check their phones within an hour of waking up and 48% would feel irritable and very anxious if they couldn’t have contact with theirphones for a week. These staggering statistics show just how attached we are to these devices, with mobile phone addiction being a recognised dependency syndrome with similarities in some cases to substance use disorders. One theory for the psychological effects of mobile phone overuse dictates that the more people are on their phone, the less human interaction they are having, therefore this is what could be contributing to their higher reported levels of depression.
So how do we beat our enslavement to the dopamine loop? Its no mean feat, our phones are constantly with us and have boundless amounts of information on them. However, making a conscious effort to reduce our phone usage and social media intake could be beneficial for our health. Minimising or turning off push notifications on your phone seems to be the first logical step. Secondly, when you catch yourself engrossed in a dopamine cycle, exit the app, put your phone down and try to do something a little more productive.