How social media hijacks your brain chemistry

How social media puts users into bubbles, feeds false beliefs, and most of all prevents any encounters with challenging and contradictory information.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

I’m not a fan of social media. As most of my friends know, I spend as little time on my accounts as I humanly can. There’s just something about it that creeps me out at a fundamental level. I suspect it’s the way social media manipulates and commodifies our very human need for harmony and agreement. In the same way that religion hijacks the evolution of our minds, social media hijacks the evolution of group psychology. Social media short-circuits the normal give-and-take of engagement and discourse that helps us correct our errors and refine overly-simplistic opinions.

And then, for good measure, social media platforms reward users constantly while strengthening the antiprocess filters that keep them from even perceiving any challenges to their opinions. The results have already proven disastrous, and will only get worse as app developers refine their techniques.

(In this post, I discuss social media as an online community. I draw a distinction between social media and other forms of more person-to-person-based online interaction, like Discords, chat programs, blog comment boxes, and forums. (<3 R2D!) A social media platform, then, is something like Instagram or TikTok: an app that’s owned by a particular business, where one central hub or app draws users to participate.)

This is your brain on dopamine

A 2021 article from The Atlantic described one social media platform thusly:

A fair summary of Instagram according to Instagram might go like this: Here is a fun product that millions of people seem to love; that is unwholesome in large doses; that makes a sizable minority feel more anxious, more depressed, and worse about their bodies; and that many people struggle to use in moderation.

What does that sound like to you? To me, it sounds like alcohol [. . .]

The Atlantic

Sure, I’m hardly the first person to notice that social media can be an addictive experience for those using it. Tons of articles have been written about the way that social media triggers releases of sexy brain chemicals like dopamine. The reality of how dopamine works is usually simplified and exaggerated by normies, but still.

Social media short-circuits the normal give-and-take of engagement and discourse that helps us correct our errors and refine overly-simplistic opinions.

Our brains have a complex reward system set up with dopamine and other chemicals to keep us doing the things that make us feel rewarded in some way, and we’ve known this truth for a long time.

Those amazing neural pathways

Similarly, we’ve known for a while that people tend to carve and then cling to their preferred pathways to get these chemical rewards–in other words, brain chemistry plays a major role in addiction. (That’s why ibogaine, a psychedelic drug, is getting attention lately from addiction researchers. It interacts with our brain cells in a unique way that interrupts those pathways.)

Perhaps less well-known is how social media keeps its customers active. When we use social media, we volunteer–willingly or not, knowingly or not–to be products for these platforms’ real customers: advertisers. Companies buy these sites’ information about us to hyper-focus their advertising at us. So, it’s in these platforms’ best interest to keep their fodder coming to the site to be exploited.

How they do it is downright chilling in its sheer insectoid coldness.

Social media for social animals

As this 2010 paper demonstrates, humans tend to light up when they experience positive social interaction from others. These interactions range from close romantic contact to just seeing smiling faces. These interactions set up rewards in our brains through those dopamine pathways I just mentioned. And, in turn, many people seek out social interaction to get those rewards. In cases where people lack the ability to get those rewards for whatever reason (the paper mentions autism and schizophrenia here), they seek social interaction far less often and seem to enjoy way less of a reward for getting it.

Long, long ago, people got social interaction only by going where there were other people. Now social media makes it possible to get those chemical rewards without even leaving your bed.

More importantly, those rewards are inconsistent but cheap to check on. Every single time someone picks up their smartphone, they hope to find something that’s interesting to read or watch from someone in their network. Or they can check out the likes and comments on their own posts. Getting the reward is as easy as picking up the device. But it’s a bit uneven in consistency. Maybe a heartfelt or charming post got almost no likes or comments. Or maybe the friends list is feeling not-so-chatty.

Still, give it a few minutes or hours. Something will be there eventually.

That’s the best-case scenario.

Social media in the worst case scenario

In the worst-case scenario, social media can enforce significant bubbles around users. These bubbles create a false sense of consensus, validate false beliefs (and bring users to believe in way more of them), indoctrinate people into tribalistic thinking, and even radicalize users into dangerous cults and pseudoscience communities.

It seems so ironic to me that 35 years ago, my mom worried about her teen daughter running into weirdos online through BBSs–and now my mom’s generation seems to have collectively fallen hook-line-and-sinker for every wackadoodle notion that’s ever come down the pike on Facebook.

The very algorithms that social media platforms use to ensnare the attention of users can be easily turned toward pushing false beliefs, fake news, and other such drivel at them.

Even YouTube (a social media platform itself, though it doesn’t present itself quite the same way as, say, Facebook) goes that way. Someone can easily click on one video, then the next in the recommended feed, then the next, and end up hours later in a weird netherworld of bizarre conspiracy theories.

Researchers and users alike call this phenomenon “the YouTube rabbit hole.” Users have reported seeing extremist content fairly quickly after entering said hole. (As we see here, with a user reporting seeing white supremacist content right after watching a video about Vikings.)

A group that really gets us—or so it seems

For a long of people, too, they find a best-case scenario of their own in social media: they find or fall into a group of very like-minded people for what might be the first time ever. This group gets them. They understand.

It’s a truly incredible rush, especially for people who have trouble finding groups they like.

In the sudden rush of camaraderie, it can be hard to know if this new group isn’t actually that great. All we’re seeing is whatever image the other people are curating for us. Maybe this new group is based around pseudoscientific claims. Or maybe its members are actually really awful people who mistreat everyone they can, and they just seem really nice at first.

The culture of social media can make these groups feel like our own families (or even better than that). So their opinions and ideas can seem very persuasive. If we push back at all, we risk losing the only community we have (or infuriating the leaders of that community, opening us up to more serious retaliation). So most people just don’t.

That’s a big part of how people can get radicalized over social media.

Antiprocess has entered the chat

Social media may have an even more insidious effect on our minds. It keeps our antiprocess shields nice and firm.

Antiprocess is how we get out of engaging with challenging information. Often, our shields work so well that we don’t even notice that challenging information has presented itself at all. If we do notice it, our shields operate a number of defensive maneuvers to keep us from having to look too closely.

In our social media bubbles, we surround ourselves with our ingroup. Outgroup members don’t usually even enter the space; if they do enter it, they typically leave or get booted fairly quickly. Our ingroup members all believe and validate the same things, giving us a huge boost of reward-chemicals: why yes, yes we are right, and how wise and discerning of you to notice it, you fine and rare bird, you.

Without the checks and balances of contradictory information, any false beliefs we hold in these environments will go unchallenged and unexamined. Worse, those beliefs will only expand outward into more and worse mistruths.

The emotional high of arguing on social media

If agreement on social media can start looking a lot like an opiate-style drug, disagreement might well be its Narcan. And some people will do literally anything to conquer disagreement so they can get the sweet, sweet brain chemicals from victory and agreement. Yes, I’m obliquely referring to that classic xkcd strip, “Duty Calls“:

1, offscreen: Are you coming to bed?

2, at computer: I can’t. This is important.

1: What?

2: Someone is wrong on the internet.

xkcd

Something happens to us when we encounter someone being wrong on the internet. It’s not like normal disagreement that we might face out in meatspace. It’s intense, and somehow even more personal. It challenges us and arouses our defensive instincts in a way that real-life disagreement just doesn’t.

Nothing will be okay until we defeat that person in single combat.

The stakes: our ability to sleep that night.

This is your brain in a social media fight

It all reminds me of this 2017 study that had people face disagreement regarding emotional vs. non-emotional beliefs. This study involved political disagreements, but the description of the effects of this disagreement sound a lot like every single social media fight I’ve ever seen:

After examining the brain scans, the researchers found that when the [self-identified liberal] participants were presented with evidence that challenged the political statements they agreed with, increased activity occurred in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and decreased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex.

The dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is associated with emotion regulation and the orbitofrontal cortex with cognitive flexibility, Kaplan said. [. . .]

When presented with counter-evidence, “we found that people who showed more amygdala activity while being challenged were less likely to change their minds,” Kaplan said.

The amygdala is a part of the brain associated with emotion, fear and anxiety.

CNN

The problem here, of course, is that as people are arguing on social media they’re also feeding the platforms’ owners information about themselves, their beliefs, and what they’re likely to want to see and do next on the platform itself. Indeed, there’s a damn fine reason why the owners of these platforms haven’t taken action to end acrimonious rows that don’t change anybody’s mind.

If you use these platforms

First and foremost, understand the manipulation at play beneath these platforms’ bright, sunny, personable marketing. If you are not paying for the service, then you’re not their customer–you’re the product that these platforms sell to their real customers. Their goal is to keep you on their platform for as long as they can. They not only want to directly advertise to you while you’re there, but also to gather information about your habits. They can sell this information to their real customers. In turn, those customers could well take your information and use it off-site in various ways.

To achieve these goals, social media companies are downright ruthless in manipulating users in all kinds of ways. If you think Facebook is the only site that does this, you’re in for some challenging information. Dating sites and all kinds of other platforms manipulate how information gets presented to you–and what happens when you dare to engage with any of it.

Accordingly, limit what you share with these platforms (unless you just like the idea of a corporation having all that information about you). Constant scandals erupting around these platforms’ use and acquisition of personal information should tell us that they don’t really care about our privacy or safety–unless forced to do so.

Also, recognize the emotional effects of hanging out on social media. Even if we only hang out with friends and like-minded people, social media usage triggers all kinds of negative emotions, including jealousy and sadness. If you feel a lot of anxiety around the idea of not checking social media regularly, that might be the signal–as it would be with alcohol consumption–that maybe it’s time to take a little break from it.

Lastly, critically analyze not only challenging claims but your own beliefs as well. Social media can produce information bubbles very easily.

And about those social media fights

Before wading into an internet fight with someone, decide for yourself what your limits are. How long will you engage? How many shots fired back and forth? What are you really hoping to accomplish here, and how realistic is this goal? Most of all, what happens when the other person fails to change their mind? Will you still talk to them afterward? Or is this the end of an online friendship?

It may be best to offer only citations of your contradictory information, which the other person can digest at their leisure. In situations where I don’t know the other person well or they’ve got a large following, I’ve also found that it feels far less frustrating to engage in these fights if I limit myself to speaking toward onlookers, rather than trying to change the mind of the person I’m actually talking to.

Since I understand the dynamics of antiprocess, I can also tell when the other person has shut down. Their antiprocess shields are fully up, loaded, and automated. Nothing’s getting past them from then on.

(Signs of antiprocess shutdown: strawman arguing, name-calling, hand-waving and other negation attacks, goalpost moving, etc. Evangelicals and other conservatives almost always shut down immediately, in my experience, but I’d reckon most people have limits to their patience.)

When you notice that your opponent has shut down, it’s okay to politely end the conversation and offer to pick it up again when they’re ready to talk again. Or to direct one’s conversation more directly to onlookers, which of necessity distances us emotionally from the fight at hand.

It’s also okay not to engage at all.

Use it wisely, is all

I know I’ve been critical of social media in this post. And I am very critical of it. That said, social media is a solid force for good in this world, especially now that people must isolate to an extent. It’s also a real boon for people who don’t socialize in real life very easily.

For some folks, too, online interaction is about the only social interaction they really get.

I simply respectfully submit that we always keep in mind just what a mind-game social media platform owners play on us to get us signed up and using regularly. If we forget that truth, then we can get wound up without even realizing it. We can’t let ourselves get lulled into complacency. We must keep our critical-thinking engines firing on all thrusters, so to speak.

If we don’t, we risk becoming the victims of corporations that callously use our own brain chemistry against us.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...