It's Not About the Dopamine

Facebook critics miss the point when focusing on its effects on brain chemistry

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 05: Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen appears before the Senate Commer...
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Zachary Siegel

“There are only two industries that call their customers users: illegal drugs and software,” computer scientist Edward Tufte says in the 2020 Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” a polemic against “the dangerous human impact of social networking.” Since Facebook’s comically disastrous week of exposés, outages, and damning Congressional testimony, the idea that Facebook and Instagram are toxic, addictive products — akin to cigarettes peddled by Big Tobacco — has come roaring back into the discourse. Tech writers, academics, and talking heads in documentaries have been saying for years that social media is tearing apart the fabric of society in myriad ways, but it's Facebook’s addictiveness — rather than its effects on privacy, democracy, or business — that is once again at the forefront of the debate about the platform’s harm, especially to young people.

Cigarettes of course deliver nicotine, widely considered the most addictive drug on the planet. So what about Facebook and Instagram? What addictive chemicals are being peddled to their “users?” Like many before her, the former Facebook data scientist-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen invoked a neurotransmitter called dopamine multiple times during her testimony to describe how Facebook keeps us in a torpid state of boundless scrolling.

“Facebook’s own research about Instagram contains quotes from kids saying, ‘I feel bad when I use Instagram, but I also feel like I can’t stop,’” Haugen said to Senators during her testimony last week. “They want the next click. They want the next ‘like.’ The dopamine, the little hits all the time.” “It’s just like cigarettes,” she went on to say. “We need to protect the kids.”

Comparing a product or company to addictive drugs is an easy way to get politicians riled up. They loathe drugs, in epic bipartisan fashion, especially when a big bad predator is on the prowl trying to hook America’s youth. But as someone who has experienced both drug addiction and — let’s say “excessive” — social media use, this comparison doesn’t sit right with me.

Reducing social media use down to the microscopic level of synapses and neurotransmitters like dopamine is the wrong way to think about its insidious harms. That platforms like Facebook have addictive qualities is hardly in doubt; the company’s very first president, Sean Parker, admitted straight up that Facebook was designed to exploit human psychology. And capitalism demands growth on an infinite curve, which means Facebook has zero incentive to help its users reduce their time on the site.

But Facebook isn’t bad for us because it may release a little surge of dopamine. Rather, Facebook has created social environments, occupied by over two billion people, whose rules and norms amplify already toxic social dynamics in the real world. To understand why Facebook is harming our mental health, we have to take into account the “social” aspect of “social media,” rather than thinking of it as a pill we take that makes us go wild. Our brains, after all, live in a society.

Haugen’s focus on dopamine is nothing new. Mistakenly known as the “pleasure chemical,” dopamine has been hyped as a cartoon villain and main culprit in addiction during many previous moral panics. Cupcakes, guns, orgasms, and now social media, are all said to be “addictive” because they release a surge of dopamine. Neuroscientist Vaughan Bell once described dopamine as the “Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters,” lamenting that its mere mention adds a veneer of scientific sophistication to otherwise “listless reporting.” “It's a simple formula,” Bell wrote. “If you disagree with something, just say it releases dopamine and imply it must be dangerously addictive.”

Simply because something is said to “release dopamine” does not mean it’s bad for you or even necessarily addictive. Dopamine is a chemical naturally produced in our brain that plays numerous roles throughout our entire body, related to everything from motor control to motivation to, yes, our reward system. Rather than producing pleasure and euphoria, dopamine has much more to do with anticipation and motivation to seek out rewards. A flood of dopamine can indeed cause a stimulating rush, which can be especially intoxicating for young people who “don’t have good self-regulation,” in Haugen’s words. But that rush is not addictive or harmful by definition, nor is it anywhere near the worst effect of social media. Treating it as such misses the larger, more complex ways products like Facebook infiltrate our lives.

You don’t need a degree in neuroscience to understand why companies like Facebook are toxic to both society and our mental health. The problems of social media platforms, from facilitating genocide to elevating anti-vaccine sentiments during a global pandemic to boosting guys like Ben Shapiro, are much bigger than the individual brain chemistries of its users. And saying that humans are powerless automatons, unthinkingly moving from one dopamine crash to the next, cedes even more undue power to companies like Facebook while minimizing our own agency and capacity to self-regulate and moderate our time online.

Teenagers were the main focus of last week’s hearing starring Haugen, who’s right to say that young people are particularly vulnerable to the ills of social media. “Instagram is about bodies and about comparing lifestyles,” Haugen told lawmakers, referencing Facebook’s research on body-image insecurities and anorexia among teenage girls. “Kids who are bullied on Instagram, the bullying follows them home,” she went on. “It follows them into their bedrooms.” Here, she gets closer to the crux of the issue. It’s the social, rather than the neurochemical, effects of Facebook that are the most harmful. Just like Instagram exacerbates bullying among teens that are already prone to interpersonal cruelty, Facebook’s algorithms perpetuate groupthink and reproduce existing power dynamics within the adult population, which is susceptible to its own destructive tendencies. This is not because its users are on an eternal hunt for the next hit of dopamine, but rather because they are operating within a social environment that encourages and rewards their worst impulses, designed by someone whose first successful website entailed rating the attractiveness of women.

Facebook indeed cynically exploits our all too human desires to connect, to be seen, and to feel like we belong. And teenagers are particularly vulnerable to harmful social media use, not only because they lack mastery over their impulses, but also because they’re in the stage of development when friendship, personal identity and expression matter a great deal. But teenagers or not, we all bring our own real world baggage and projections to every interaction on social media. “Lonely, depressed individuals who develop preference for online means of interaction are prone to problematic Internet use,” a researcher analyzing “Facebook addiction” wrote in the American Journal of Psychiatry. In other words, whatever mental health or social problem we feel in real life could be made to feel much worse on social media.

For me, opioids helped relieve feelings of depression and anxiety that got in the way of feeling connected to others. But over time, the more I used opioids the more isolated I felt — this was the brutal paradox of my addiction. My social media use feels much different, mainly because the benefits I get from it (new friends, ideas, and freelance work) outweigh its harms (frustration with opinions I don’t need to be looking at, professional jealousy, and anger with people I barely know). Both the pros and the cons of Twitter, my platform of choice, are social. Whereas opioids made me feel alone, social media puts me in the middle of a massive dinner party which can feel exhilarating or suffocating depending on the day.

Social media can help us — and contrary to your local DARE officer, so can drugs. But the knife cuts both ways, and any behavior, drug, or social media platform, can also lead to painful outcomes; it depends how we use it.

As for why some people feel like they can’t stop using apps like Instagram even though they’re experiencing negative consequences, which is the very definition of addiction, there are much simpler explanations that don’t require reducing humans to dopamine fiends. A 2018 study of 500 young adults found that FOMO (fear of missing out) was actually the strongest predictor of developing a “social media addiction” (social media addiction, to be clear, is not officially recognized as bona fide mental health diagnosis). Seeing what all your friends are doing online, without you there, can make you feel like garbage no matter how old you are. So maybe, just maybe, turning vital human activities like socializing and our longing to connect into a digital slot machine was a bad idea.

Zachary Siegel is a writer living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter (not Facebook) at @ZachWritesStuff.