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This Is Your Brain On Social Media

It’s your birthday. Nothing has come in the mail except bills and ads sent to “Resident.” But wait. You haven’t logged on to Facebook yet! The moment you think of it, the dilemma begins. Do you log on to see how many posts you have, or do you just think about how many you have? Once you log on, you’ll know; you’ll know whether or not anyone stopped long enough to wish you a happy birthday. You hesitate, but once you’ve asked yourself the question, it’s impossible not to answer it. So you log on and cringe, just a bit. Sweet relief! You have 27 wall posts, from people you saw yesterday to people you haven’t seen since the third grade.

You have unlimited texting on your phone, so it’s no big deal, really. You sign up to receive tweets from the offensive tackle of your city’s NFL team. That’s along with all of the other tweets you get – some from people you know but mostly from people you don’t. You sign up and then you wait. Before long, there’s the tweet! It’s not about anything significant; that’s not the point. The point is you’re connected to an elite group of people receiving this special message (albeit numbering in the thousands). But thousands aren’t millions, and that somehow makes you feel good.

You know you’re not supposed to be surfing the internet at work, but this video’s only, what, ninety seconds, max? What harm can that be? Well, it did take you longer to find it, but not that long, and you’re sure your coworkers haven’t seen it yet. After all, they don’t spend as much time online as you do and have come to rely on you to handle the techy tidbits. Someone else brings in doughnuts every Thursday, and it’s your job to bring in the Net nibble of the week. It all started with those Maru, the Japanese cat, videos. All of you ended up talking about them for weeks. Now they look to you for that brief respite of online entertainment. You have value, you have cachet. It feels good.

It does feel good. Each experience like this is like a drug hit, a thrill. Doing this stuff activates your brain’s pleasure centers. The more fun it is, the more you want to do it. The more you want to do it, the more you actually do it. The more you do, the closer you come to that line…the line over which impulsive activity becomes addictive.

According to an article in Time magazine entitled “Wired for Distraction: Kids and Social Media,” we have two different brain circuits. The first is for concentrating, when we bear down and genuinely focus. The second is for “reactive attention,” when we look up and pay attention to something new or novel. The new and the novel can produce a pleasurable response. Quoting a Stanford researcher, the article says, “Each time we get a message or text, our dopamine reward circuits probably get activated, since the desire for social connection is so wired into us.” Ding! A message. Ding! A text. Ding! A factoid or video. Ding, ding, ding. Fun, fun, fun. Twenty years ago someone ringing your doorbell triggered your reactive attention. Now it’s a minute-to-minute symphony of chimes, bells, beeps, and growls from every connected device in your life.

The above is excerpted from chapter 3 in #Hooked: The Pitfalls of Media, Technology and Social Networking by Dr. Gregory Jantz.

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