MANY OF US HAVE EXPERIENCED THE WAYS IN WHICH SOCIAL MEDIA HAS CHANGED THE ONLINE WORLD. BUT SHOULD WE BE WORRIED ABOUT IT ALTERING OUR BEHAVIOUR TOO?
Do social networks do what they say on the tin, or are they actually making us more antisocial? Neuroscientist Dr Dean Burnett examines the evidence.
“The truth is, our social interactions, both online and in person, have a huge effect on our thinking and cognition”
Recently, I witnessed the unpleasant breakdown of a relationship. One partner accused the other of infidelity and promiscuity; the other retaliated with claims of emotional abuse, drunken behaviour and an inability to perform sexually. All this, in much more sweary language than that conveyed here. It got nasty fast, with children being dragged into it, and friends taking sides and furiously rowing with those who’d taken the other side. All very grim, and it made me vow to avoid any and all of those involved as a result.
That wasn’t difficult though, as I’d never actually met any of them to begin with. This whole breakdown happened on Facebook. Some friends of friends had asked to add me to their network, I’d unthinkingly agreed, and thus I ended up with a front-row seat to their hideous break-up. Ironic, that a social network was essentially responsible for the destruction of so many social bonds.
You’ve no doubt heard many complaints about social networks before. They’re time- consuming, invasive, confusing, compromise your privacy and so on. But do they actually make us
antisocial? Is there any credibility to that claim?
If, like many do, you draw a clear line between online interactions and real-world interactions, with more importance being placed on the latter, then yes, arguably there is. But to really get to the heart of the matter, you have to look at how social networks affect our behaviour and actions towards other people. They can and do have significant impacts on these things, because of the way our brains work. The truth is, our social interactions, both online and in person, have a huge effect on our thinking and cognition. The social brain hypothesis, first put forward in the 90s by anthropologist Robert Dunbar, suggests that our sociable nature is why we have such big brains to begin with. The argument is that primitive humans banded together in communities, and this cooperative approach proved very useful for our survival. But this lifestyle requires a lot of information to be processed; who do you trust? Who will help you? Who owes you favours? And so on. A substantial amount of detail needs to be available at a moment’s notice. Basically, you need a lot of grey matter to maintain this. That’s the theory, anyway (and there are others).
In support of this, brain imaging studies have shown a network of regions, including cortical midline structures and tempero-parietal junctions, which show increased activity when the subject contemplates being part of a group. Areas like the ventral medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex show increased activity when processing our sense of self, our identity, and when processing awareness of the groups or communities we feel we’re part of. This all suggests our social interactions are a major component of our identity, at a very fundamental level.
Humans need social interactions. Depriving humans of social contact, as when prisoners are sent to solitary confinement, is recognised by psychologists as a form of torture. On the other hand, too much social interaction isn’t good either. Social interaction is mentally taxing: engaging with someone is a lot of work for the brain, as it requires mental effort. This explains the apparent contradiction between humans needing social interaction, but also needing privacy. Social interaction wears our brain out, so we need privacy to get away for a bit and ‘recharge’.
All this shows that the brain strikes a precise balance to ensure we get the most from our social interactions. But just as putting 10 times the required amount of sugar into a cake doesn’t make it 10 times better, so social networks can amplify aspects of socialising and social relationships in ways that are unhelpful, if not downright harmful.
As early as 2010, professional psychiatrists were arguing that social network addiction was a real
phenomenon that should be classed as a clinical disorder, citing a case study of an individual who spent five hours a day checking Facebook, rarely leaving the house to do so, losing jobs and in one case interrupting the therapy consultation to check their updates – tantamount to opening a beer during an AA meeting. It essentially means cutting off all other forms of social contact to focus solely on social media, to the detriment of your overall existence.
There are explanations for this. A successful social interaction means we experience a real-world reward in the brain. Oxytocin release gives a general sense of well-being and connection, and the mesolimbic reward pathway, buried deep in the centre of the brain, releases dopamine, giving a rush of pleasure. Some argue – and a few studies even provide some evidence – that a successful social interaction online, such as a popular Facebook post or widely shared tweet, can also produce this positive response in the brain.
Unfortunately, these social ‘hits’ are a lot easier to get online, without all the effort of ‘normal’ social interactions. Drugs of abuse operate on similar principles, triggering the reward pathway, but without the hassle of actually doing the action that the brain would consider deserving of a reward. Over time, the brain adapts to expect these pleasurable signals, and does things like disrupt the areas responsible for inhibitions or conscious self- control to keep them coming. Indeed, a 2013 neuroimaging study at the University of Zurich led by psychologist Dr Katrin Preller revealed that cocaine addicts have diminished activity in areas like the orbitofrontal cortex, resulting in reduced emotional empathy and willingness to socialise. So if social network addiction is exploiting similar mechanisms to cocaine addiction, then social networks may well be having an ironically negative impact on individual’s ability to socialise, rendering them more antisocial. More research is needed.
Another issue is that people have a greater deal of control over their interactions online, meaning they can decide, to a much greater degree, how others experience them. You can put up only good photos, delete unwise comments, spellcheck, share smart memes and so on. This satisfies an underlying process the brain engages in known as ‘impression management’, where we’re constantly compelled to present the best possible image of ourselves to others, in order to make them more likely to approve of us.
A 2014 study led by the University of Sheffield’s Dr Tom Farrow looked at impression management. Using scanning technology, the team asked subjects to choose behaviours that would make people like them, and that would make people dislike them. Activation was recorded in regions including the medial prefrontal cortex, the midbrain and cerebellum, suggesting that these brain regions are involved in processing the image of ourselves we want to present to others.
“As early as 2010, psychiatrists were arguing that social network addiction should be classed as a disorder”
Social networking can trigger reward pathways in the brain, and may lead to addiction
We are social creatures – isolation is used as a form of torture and can warp the mind