Antisocial net­work


Focus-Science and Technology - - Contents - WORDS: DR DEAN BUR­NETT Dean is a doc­tor of neu­ro­science at Cardiff Univer­sity. His de­but book, The Id­iot Brain, is avail­able now. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter @gar­w­boy

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

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