In recent months, many people have been speaking out about social media abuse, with various sports bodies and others taking part in a recent boycott to raise awareness of the issue. But there is another, not unrelated, way in which social media is having a negative impact on people’s wellbeing, with California State University estimating that 10% of Americans have a social media addiction.
A lot has been written about the link between social media and the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a role in most addictions, with Sean Parker the founding president of Facebook admitting in 2017 that the ‘like’ button was explicitly designed to engineer a dopamine hit.
Dopamine is often erroneously seen as a ‘pleasure chemical’ because we experience surges of it when engaged in enjoyable activities but it is also has more prosaic functions, such as keeping us motivated and regulating our movement. According to Psychology Today it is ‘linked to everything interesting about metabolism, evolution, and the brain.’
We are evolutionarily hardwired to seek out activities which cause spikes in dopamine. And, in a world of scarcity, this was a sound tactic. Today, however, we live in a world with an effectively unlimited supply of dopamine-spiking foods and activities, such as sugar, drugs and social media, available on demand.
And, by continually providing users with little hits, social media platforms make it very difficult for someone to pull themselves away. As Tristan Harris points out in the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, there are only two groups of people who describe their customers as ‘users’: social media executives and drug dealers.
But our proclivity for social media is not purely about pleasure. Evolutionary psychology has thrown up several other explanations, which help explain why we find these platforms so addictive. As Chris Paley explains in his book Beyond Bad humans are a social species and, for most of our history, we have lived in small groups. We have evolved to use signals to indicate our allegiance to our group and, concurrently, our opposition to other groups. People who went against their in-group were liable to be killed or excluded and were therefore far less likely to pass on their genes.
These instincts have survived into the modern day and were apparent long before social media, through our fashion choices, football teams, taste in music and countless other appendages we add to our personality to send out signals to the rest of our tribe. In most cases, we are completely unaware we are doing this, believing instead that our penchant for garage music and fast cars is an indelible part of who we are. But it’s very rare to find someone whose tastes and interests are entirely different from those of their friends.
As a tribal species, it is hardly surprising that we have been drawn to social media, a platform that allows us to send out in-group signals to hundreds of people at once. From using a hashtag, to putting an emblem in our profile picture, these platforms provide countless ways to tell others who we are and who we aren’t.
In a sense, these platforms have allowed us to become a truer version of ourselves. At school for instance, a child with a niche interest shared by no one else in the class, may keep it to herself. But online you can always find your tribe. For instance, a Facebook group for people who like to pretend they are ants in an ant colony has over 100,000 members.
In another sense, of course, these platforms entirely distort who we are and lead us to behave in ways we simply wouldn’t in real life. And once again, evolutionary psychology plays a key role.
To give one example, Paley makes a convincing case for the evolutionary pulls behind our enthusiasm for criticising the government. He explains that for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, humans have lived in small groups. Criticising a leadership figure has therefore historically been a high risk activity, carrying with it the risk of expulsion from the group and quite often death. However, precisely because it was seen as a risky activity, criticising the leader was also a way to display bravery, which is an attractive quality for potential mates. By taking such a risk, our ancestors would simultaneously gain kudos and put themselves in the firing line.
Today, criticising the prime minister, in the UK at least, is a very low risk activity. You are not going to be excluded from society or killed for doing so. But, Paley argues, because of our hardwired evolutionary activities, our friends are still likely to subconsciously interpret our diatribes against the government as brave. In this light, we can see that bashing the prime minister on social media is essentially an evolutionary life hack. You get all the upside without any of the risk.
This explains why political posts, particularly those attacking powerful people, are so popular. And if one political post gets a lot of attention, you are encouraged to post more and more and more, with the potential to develop not only an addiction to social media but an addiction to politics as well.
In a similar vein, directly attacking someone’s opinion has historically carried a much higher risk than it does today. In tribal societies this could have led to a physical fight and, once again, to expulsion or death. Today, a small element of risk still remains if you criticise someone in person. But social media provides a perfect platform for us to engage in a safe duel with an opponent. You get to signal your bravery and your in-group credentials to the rest of your tribe, without taking any of the risk your ancestors would have incurred.
Hostility to people outside of your tribe, particularly those perceived as powerful, is a very successful tactic for getting likes. By engaging in behaviour of this kind, we get to signal our false bravery, we get the positive reinforcement from our tribe that we so crave and we get the continual hits of dopamine. In short, social media is a modern technology powered by our ancient impulses.
And with so many of us hooked to these platforms, it is no surprise they have become a nirvana for the advertising industry. The social media companies provide advertisers with a perfect breakdown of tribes and sub-tribes, who spend significant chunks of their lives online, and the advertisers have realised the power of getting the most influential people in these tribes to endorse their products.
These ancient evolutionary pulls can also at least partly explain why companies are increasingly keen to make political statements. Whereas in the past most companies were publicly apolitical, it now makes perfect business sense for them to take a stance that aligns with the majority of their customer base. For the reasons laid out above, talking politics is a successful strategy for getting attention and, whether the company genuinely cares about the issue or not, it is likely to increase sales.
It is important to remember that there is also a significant upside to social media. Fulfilling some of our primordial desires isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. If this also allows us to keep in touch with loved ones who we are unable to see in person, so much the better. And if companies are able to target their products more accurately, this provides significant benefits for consumers too.
The trouble arises when the combination of new technology and old evolutionary drives is so potent that someone finds themselves spending too much of their time online that they neglect the rest of their lives. Ironically, if we invest too much in our ‘online tribe’ we may end up missing out on the tribe that, deep down, matters to us most of all: our family and close friends who we can spend time with in real life.
One of the great difficulties of the human condition is that we have all evolved to operate in a world very different from the one we find ourselves living in today. But a huge upside is that there has never been more knowledge available to help us understand the reasons behind our instincts and desires.
And so, if you want to give up or cut back on social media, a great starting point is to recognise the key things that make it so addictive. As we have seen, two of these things are the dopamine hits and our tribal instincts. If you understand the evolutionary pulls behind both, it is easier to step in and resist them.
If you make an effort each day to spend slightly less time on social media and slightly more time face to face with the people you love, it’s likely you’ll continue to satisfy your primordial desires while, at the same time, having a greater handle on the modern world.