In the latest headlines, the neurotransmitter dopamine is invoked — that sweet pump we get from a rewarding experience. Apparently, Facebook / social media has been exploiting the dopamine feedback loop to keep us hooked in and hungry for more “rewarding” experiences.
But there’s more to this social media neurotransmitter hacking, than just dopamine. Opioids, which our bodies naturally create internally (“endogenous opioids”, if you want the official term) are also in play — though just how much the social media makers know/knew about it and exploit(ed) it, is anybody’s guess.
In a 2007 paper The neural basis of scene preferences, Yue, Vessel and Biederman point out that
that when research subjects were shown pictures of ambiguous situations that required some interpretation (Are those two people angry at each other?), they appeared to produce more pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters than when shown static and uninteresting pictures. The brain seems to thrive on being exposed to information that needs to be interpreted and rewards us mightily with natural opiates.
Source: Why The First Click Is Always Free, Forbes.com
Okay, so what? So we get a rush of naturally occurring opioids, when we click something.
Here’s why I think it matters:
The whole reason synthetic drugs work, is because they fit like “keys” in the biochemical “locks” in our systems. And when we keep using synthetic imitations of our internal naturally occurring chemistry, our bodies and brains get “wired” to stop producing our own versions of them. And the more you use those artificial replacements, the less your own system is inclined to make its own. Ultimately, you train your body to not produce those chemicals anymore. And because they’re important to our function (in small or large amounts), we become physiologically dependent on the artificial versions just to maintain.
If this is the case with synthetic drugs which produce an opiate effect, wouldn’t this also hold true with non-chemical sources of neurotransmitter release — namely, social media (in particular, Facebook)?
Frankly, I’m surprised more reporters haven’t followed up on this. There were a handful of articles written about 10 years ago, about this social-media-opioid connection, and then everything went quiet. Perhaps because there was money to be made in social media, and nobody thought it was that big of a deal?
But check out the two charts below, and then tell me there’s no correlation:
Look at what happened around 2009. It’s an awfully chilling correlation.
But this could be due to anything, right? Well, look at the usage of opioids, compared to cocaine. Coke usage has actually gone down. But opioid use? Way up.
Of course, without going into the depths of this, it’s conjecture. Without additional data, deeper research, and looking at social media usage patterns among opioid users. But if our bodies’ ability to produce our own opioids (and reduce pain while increasing pleasure) is decreasing because we’ve become depending on social media to prompt the endogenous opioid pump, it would help explain just why we’re so much more inclined to use prescription opioids.
If our bodies are impaired in producing biochemicals that are integral to our well-being and everyday pain management, we’ve got to replace them somehow. And pharmacologically speaking, we have plenty of options.
Unfortunately, a lot of people are quite prone to exercising those options.
Here’s some more reading from 10 years back, when people were noticing the social media/opioid connection: