For years now, Facebook has affected our emotions, relationships and social interactions. Raising the alarm to its incredible influence, and in particular, its possible effects on the human brain, is Sean Parker – one of its original founders.
During a conference organized by Axios at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia (USA) Parker, former founder of Napster and among the first to promote the development and launch of Facebook, stated in no uncertain terms, “Facebook exploits human psychology, and God knows what it is doing to our children “.
In all respects, the famous social network seems like a great social experiment that is transforming society. Our emotions and our capacity for analysis are becoming increasingly shaped through a digital society that mostly develops, compares and interacts within the confines of this network, so powerful and in some ways worrisome. Even for those who founded and nurtured it during the early stages.
Is social media a drug?
Parker defines Facebook as a “loop of social validation, able to exploit the flaws of human psychology”. In other words, Facebook – like all other social networks – takes advantage of the vulnerability of human psychology to create a strong dependence through the “likes”, “comments” and “sharing” mechanisms.
Let's look at a few examples. Have you ever wondered why we constantly check our smartphones? It’s probably because we are waiting for a message from an important person, or keeping an eye on how many people are commenting on our Facebook status.
A typical example of social conditioning is the case of Wattsapp’s ” blue double ticks”. Who hasn’t once said something like, “Unbelievable! They have seen my message but not replied!”
But the most surprising thing, and this is the real point, is our emotional reaction to everything we share online. If our followers respond positively, we are happy. However, if we don’t get many likes or shares, we feel insufficiently appreciated by our virtual community, or worse still, ignored.
Sean Parker got it in one: Facebook and all the other socials push us to search for continuous approval by our network of virtual contacts. We want to have consensus, to be shared, because this generates in us pleasure and self-gratification.
But what does this chemistry of happiness depend on? Dopamine. The appreciation of something we shared via social networks generates this powerful neurotransmitter, which is able to stimulate our emotions, giving pleasure and satisfaction, and lifting our mood. It’s no exaggeration to say that social networks are addictive and condition our mood daily.
Facebook is changing the way we learn
It doesn’t stop there. There is growing suspicion that Facebook may also influence the way we learn, memorize, relate to others and even reason. In short, it’s changing our brains.
Every update, every change of rules dictated by Facebook affects interactions and involvement within the network and, consequently, also affects brains, especially those of younger users. What is at stake are the dynamics of learning and relationship and the ability to concentrate.
Cognitive learning is accomplished by organizing information, making comparisons, forming new associations, and it is guided by past and present experiences. But on a regular basis these scenarios are changed in Facebook; the rules of the game change, and this makes it impossible to build linear learning over time.
Even one's identity is no longer shaped by the peer group, which is no longer identifiable and “controllable”.
In short, if it is true that technology and progress are unstoppable, it is also true that we should monitor and carefully observe what is happening online. In these environments that are fluid enough to slip through your hands, existing rules and norms are crumbling, and we don’t know how this will impact young users in the future.
Facebook and brains: what the latest research shows
Facebook communities, groups, interactions seem to have replaced the real and tangible reference group of friends. But the effects of the network can be far more serious than mentioned by Sean Parker.
According to researchers at the Shanghai University Medical School: in the brain of Internet-dependent users, there is an abnormal quantity of white matter, nerve-fibre bundles covered with myelin that guarantee the connection between the brain and the spinal cord – in the areas designated for attention, control and executive functions.
The result of this is a physical change in the brain. In short, those who use social networks consistently have different brains to those who do not. In this way social media and its effects are increasingly similar to the effects of drugs.
So, all interactions in communities can be defined as simply the need for sharing, but it goes beyond that. It is the compulsive need to render one's social life public, a spectacle.
The impermanence of messages is also altering the memory, the capacity for concentration and logical deduction.
We might object: “Social networks are not making us stupid, but closer.” In reality we are facing changes of historical proportions. The new generations are less able to concentrate, and to discern what is true from what is not, as in the case with so-called “fake news”.
Too much information
What is the reason for this? For one, because our brain is getting so much info that it's slowing it down, and this also slows down the ability to make immediate decisions.
This was demonstrated by an experiment by Angelika Dimoka, director of the Center for Neural Decision Making of The Temple University. The researcher invited a group of volunteers to a sort of auction, taking into consideration, before making the offer, a series of variables so as to obtain the best combination at the lowest price.
The researcher has observed how the increase in the variables also increased the error, and demonstrated through magnetic resonance, that the informational load increased the activity of the prefrontal cortex lateral backbone, responsible for decision-making processes and control of emotions. After a certain threshold of information and parameters to be considered was surpassed, the brain underwent a sort of cognitive blackout that prevented the presentation of a new offer. Along with this, the subjects showed signs of anxiety and mental fatigue.
So, yes, the digital age is not making us stupid, but it is drastically changing our feelings and behaviours.
We are almost part of a huge Skinner Box and the continuous flow of information is generating tiredness and anxiety. These, combined with a hectic and stressful life, are affecting the ability to make decisions.
The only real solution is to slow down, switch from “always on” to “sometimes on”. Otherwise it will affect our whole life, including our relationships. This is not alarmism but rather a call to reclaim our lives and be really masters of our choices.
Ilaria di Paolo writes for Family and Media, where this article first appeared. It is republished with permission.