Biological & Psychological Reasons for Social Media Addiction

Biological & Psychological Reasons for Social Media Addiction
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Hooked to social media

Hooked to social media


Digital age addiction falls into five typesdevice addiction (i.e., computer game addiction), information overload (i.e., web surfing addiction), net compulsions (i.e., online gambling or online shopping addiction), cybersexual addiction (i.e., online pornography or online sex addiction), and cyber-relationship addiction (i.e., an addiction to online relationships). A 2012 survey by Common Sense Media found that “[teens] are attached to their devices than to their social networking sites: 41% of cell phone owners say they would describe themselves as “addicted” to their phones, and 32% of iPad owners say the same. 20% of social networkers say they are “addicted” to their sites.” Social networking already accounts for 28 percent of all media time spent online. 15 and 19 year olds spend at least 3 hours per day on average using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 18 percent of social media users check Facebook every four hours, and 28 percent of iPhone users check their Twitter feed before they get out of bed in the morning.

A possibly subtle cause for the absence of clear cut protocols to detect and classify social media overuse as an addiction is that unlike chemical dependency (alcohol, recreational drugs etc.), the Internet (and social media) is not entirely damaging. Furthermore, there are several benefits of social media and internet to the individual and society and hence it becomes difficult to label them as being "addictive". For social media use in particular, it is hard to know if the addiction is to the medium or to the interaction. Danah Boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, believes that “Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other”. Besides, the withdrawal symptoms are not biological as are normally found with substance abuse and addiction. However, gaming-addiction, television addiction, gambling addiction etc. are already known in the psychiatric circles, and none of these involve characteristic withdrawal symptoms such as “liver cirrhosis” (alcohol), “stroke” (marijuana) etc. In the rest of this article, social-media dependence will be referred to as “compulsive use” rather than addiction until a clear definition of “addiction” evolves.

Neuroimaging studies have clearly shown the portions of the brain that are involved when engaged in social media. Social media engagement has been found to trigger three key networks in the brain – the “mentalizing network”, the “the self-referential cognition network” and the “reward network”.

The three brain networks that may be involved in social media use

The three brain networks that may be involved in social media use
  • The mentalizing network :dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), temporoparietal junction (TPJ), anterior temporal lobe (ATL), inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), and the posterior cingulate cortex/precuneus (PCC);
  • the self-referential cognition network: medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and PCC;
  • the reward network (ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), ventral striatum (VS), and ventral tegmental area (VTA)).

In 2015, a research team from UCLA published a paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, showing that when the human brain is not actively engaged in something, it tends to start focusing on other people to "see the world through a social lens," – a process called “mentalizing”. In terms of neuroscience, the “dorsomedial prefrontal cortex”, the part of the brain that engages in social interaction, creates empathy to other people’s thoughts and feelings, and help us make judgements about other people. Such judgements are vital– the speed of judging if “the man with a spear will throw the spear at me” has been the reason we exist today, and any activity that engages the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex is perceived as being important and thus non-optional. The fact that social media sites engage the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex could be a reason for the natural proclivity to social media compulsive use.

For adolescents and teenagers, this very neuroscience of social media overuse can be dangerous. The adolescent brain is a work in progress, and neuroscientists have found that the prefrontal cortex, the area of decision making and social interactions, is still growing during adolescence. Given the plasticity of the neural connections of the human brain, the portions that are used constructively, continue to grow and develop, while those that are mis-used, would grow in unhealthy ways. While the use of the prefrontal cortex in creative endeavours would hardwire the cells and connections that are associated with creativity, passive social networking could result in loss of creativity.

“Self referencing” – thinking about oneself is important for self-appraisals, and social competitiveness. In fact, humans devote about 30–40% of all speech to talking about themselves, but this number spikes to about 80% of social media posts. The fact that social media participation triggers this survival instinct, could trigger its compulsive use.

The “reward network” is possibly the most important neurological reason or compulsive use of online social network among adolescents and teens. Teens have exaggerated activity in the nucleus accumbens area (part of the ventral striatum) of the brain, which is associated with reward. This explains why pleasure and pain are more intensely felt during teenage than any other time of their lives. The increased activity and size of the nucleus accumbens among adolescents is the reason for social approval and social outcomes administered by peers to be highly valued. It has been proven that an adolescent’s decisions (good or bad) are certainly influenced by the opinons of their peers. This behavioral tendency has been associated with increased activity in the reward network of the brain. Social media provide the adolescent with a constant supply of social rewards in terms of peer recognition and approval, as can be seen from the triggering of the reward network, which can serve as a powerful attraction to continued social media use.

Dopamine has been traditionally considered the “pleasure chemical” of the brain, it is now understood to be a chemical that creates “want”. It has been found that social media navigation is associated with a surge of dopamine; Dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability, by small bits of information, and by reward cues, all of which are characteristics of social media use. The release of dopamine during online social networking makes it much harder for people to resist the activity.

Even more compelling is the fact that online social media engagement causes a release of oxytoxin, the “cuddle chemical” of the brain. It has been shownt hat oxytocin levels can rise as much as 13%—a spike equivalent to the spike people get when they are getting married to their love.

Compulsive use of social media results from a combination of biological, psychological and social factors and there is still much research underway to understand the individual and combinatorial factors responsible for social media overuse among adolescents.

Writing credit: Co-authored by Lakshmi, a Mobicip writer & researcher who delves deep into the sociological and psychological repercussions of an internet-enabled life.

Mobicip is the creator of the most powerful and extensive internet safety software for tablets, smartphones and computers in households today. Learn more at

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