Nobody needs more platforms. We need ways to deal with what we have.
Reform must go beyond government regulations. To get rid of cravings, people need to understand the feelings that social media is masking and amplifying. Then, users should treat themselves with compassion. again and again.
Here’s the problem: Tech companies have hijacked people’s need for belonging and status. Humans are super social creatures: the bonds between individuals mean the survival and success of the tribe. So when people make connections and feel approved on social media, their brains are rewarded with the delicious hormone dopamine. The same kind of blow comes from schadenfreude – enjoying other people’s troubles. He is human: even babies are happy to see dolls punish dolls.
Social platforms feed this neurotic compulsion with followers, “likes,” and algorithms that magnify misfortune. As with any other stimulant, over time the brain needs bigger and bigger hits to feel the same pleasure.
Here is where too much of a good thing can be dangerous. As neuroscientist Dean Burnett told me, a distorted drive to please impairs people’s ability to empathize and can drive them to extremes. The emotionally driven limbic system is under severe stress. This affects the prefrontal cortex, where impulse control and foresight will normally limit risky behaviour, including overindulgence on social media, food, or alcohol.
Exhibit A: 68 percent of parents say they sometimes or often feel distracted by their phones when they are with their children, and the majority worry that their children spend too much time online.
Exhibit B: Nearly half of American teens say they have been bullied online.
Exhibit C: Tribalism and Polarization on the Internet, manipulated by former President Donald Trump, took off on January 6, 2021, when extremists attacked the US Capitol.
Xinsheng Wang of the Adult Development and Decision Making Laboratory at the University of Central Florida put it this way: dehumanization is the price people pay for using social media to communicate.
Watch: Kate Woodsome Explains the Neuroscience of Political Sectarianism
So what do we do? Before the next school year begins and another political vicious cycle escalates, users can protect their mental health by taking small, compassionate steps. Individual action can, over time, help heal a community as well.
Awareness is the first step. Besides noticing dopamine spikes, therapist and addiction specialist Dawn Tyus suggests looking at other things that contribute to addictive behaviors.
This includes genetics, such as having a close relative with a substance use disorder; mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety; and environmental factors, such as adverse childhood experiences. 64% of adults in the United States say they experienced violence, abuse, neglect, or the loss of a parent due to death, divorce, or imprisonment before the age of 18. Myths that you are not loved or that you don’t belong. Grief dispels myths. Social media reinforces them.
Tyus calls out what rejection looked like in the past and what it looks like now. Even in the absence of childhood trauma, separation or job loss can lead us to death. To get rid of feelings, Tyus suggests using paper and pen to jot down difficult memories and the pain they bring up.
Next, identify activities that bring peace without technology. This could be anything: playing basketball, being me
n nature, coloring and hair braiding. Tyus also recommends that you control your social media use by setting limits on time and types of content.
At the Morehouse College School of Medicine, where Teuss is the director and principal investigator of the Center of Excellence for African American Behavioral Health, she encourages students struggling with social media addiction to forgive themselves so they can begin to feel hopeful. “This is how you start to go back to the old human connections,” Teus said.
Real human connections create a virtuous circle. Burnett explains that face-to-face interactions are usually more rewarding than online conversations because they activate more parts of the brain. “You look at someone’s facial expression; you get empathy from[their]emotional cues.” Empathy, the antidote to schadenfreude, provides a higher quality of dopamine.
Congress, parents, and the media have all rightly raised the alarm about social media’s association with poor mental health. Tech companies need to be responsible for bait and switch — promising communication and delivering its opposite. But users who rely on social media can’t wait for tech giants to change the way they make money.
Research shows that people who already have mental health issues are more likely than others to misuse the Internet as a coping method. Affordable and accessible treatments are needed for those suffering from anxiety, depression, or harming themselves or others even if social media had not been invented before. More socio-emotional education is needed – for everyone – to explain how emotions influence behavior.
Threads would only be better than Twitter if people used it to say, “Enough.”