Social Media And The Dopamine Feedback Loop: Here’s How It Affects You.

Psychology says the reason you can’t stop scrolling, liking and sharing countless posts on social media is due to dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that motivates reward-seeking behaviour by triggering feelings of pleasure and enjoyment. These behaviours include but are not limited to using narcotic drugs, engaging in successful social interactions, having sex and eating food.

Concerning this, the dopamine feedback loop refers to situations where you are constantly driven to anticipate and perform specific actions repeatedly to pursue these temporary rewards or feelings of pleasure stimulated by dopamine.

In this age of smartphones and social media, the feedback loop has created a craze for virtual validation in the form of likes, shares, and FOMO (fear of missing out). Being stuck in this loop may have both long term and short term effects on not only your mental and general well-being but that of people around you as well. So let’s dive right in.

Negative feelings

You have probably experienced this millions of times. You scroll through your social feed for ten minutes, then fifteen minutes, before you realize a whole hour has been wasted in the rabbit hole of texts, stories and posts. By now, it’s pretty apparent that you have been caught in the insatiable dopamine feedback loop. Different studies have shown that prolonged exposure to social media can increase depression, stress and anxiety. That’s no surprise considering all the tons of information we are bombarded with daily. Social media has now become the main factor fuelling the feedback loop in an evolutionary context. People are desperate to snatch a few moments of dopamine hit by pursuing likes and attention on social media. The constant comparison of your life with those of other people on Instagram can lead to unhappiness and lack of contentment. Interesting enough, the overuse of social media has resulted in a new modern-age phenomenon called phantom vibration syndrome or ringxiety. This is a perception where you think your phone is vibrating or ringing when it isn’t.

Phubbing

Phubbing is a portmanteau of the words “phone” and “snubbing”. It simply means ignoring a loved one or the person right next to you in favour of your phone, especially during face-to-face interactions. A 2016 study by ScienceDirect revealed that over 17% of people phub others at least four times a day, while 32% said they are usually phubbed 2 to 3 times a day. The main reason for this is not far-fetched. Most people are stuck in a dopamine feedback loop that has sucked them into the bottomless pits of their smartphone screens which have, in turn, resulted in an almost “unconscious” habit of paying attention to their phones instead of the people around them. The frantic desire to be in the know at all times, retweet the most recent quote from a celeb or post new selfies on IG may easily make you forget you are in the presence of other people who deserve your full attention. Aside from being toxic for relationships, phubbing can also result in low self-esteem, insecurity and poor social skills.

The Mob/Herd Mentality

We all want to be accepted and feel like we belong to a particular group in one way or the other. If you think you are an exception, well, psychology says your chances of complying with social norms are as high as 75%. This is directly related to the “feeling good” factor and pleasurable sensations released by dopamine. Unfortunately, it can also be a breeding ground for a phenomenon known as the mob mentality or herd mentality. With deep roots in social pressure, the mob mentality describes how people are influenced by their peers to indulge in activities they would never do alone.

Social media platforms have now become a fertile ground for mob mentality to thrive and flourish. Talk about the cancel culture, verbal abuse, hate mail and cyberbullying. Being at the receiving end of a mob backlash on social media can lead to a drastic dip in self-confidence, anger, loss of jobs or good social standing(especially in celebrities or prominent people), and in some cases, depression. Moreover, it is extremely easy to get swayed into participating in a mob mentality for fear of going contrary to the norm. The more you keep subscribing to popular opinions instead of fact-based evaluations, the higher your chances of repeatedly subscribing to the norm to feel good.

Like every other thing in life, social media has pros and cons. The key is to find the right balance and be intentional about the amount of energy and time spent on the platforms to avoid falling into the same addictive pattern every time.

Digital Times Africa is a multimedia news organization for technology in Africa and beyond.