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Why You’re Addicted to Social Media — Dopamine, Technology, and Inequality


Here is an essay I gained an A+ for in a computing paper which I took last semester at university. The assigned topic for the piece was:

What are some of the influences of ICT on society and how could ICT be contributing to greater social or wealth inequality? Then in personal opinion, what steps should be taken to reduce this inequality?

We were to read the article “Technology and Inequality” by David Rotman for the initial background to the topic and then form an answer. I took the scope of outlining the effects of social media on dopamine and developed my answer from there.

Give it a read:


Dopamine, Technology, and Inequality — it’s Not the Technology but How We’re Using it

A response to “Technology and Inequality” by David Rotman

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Inequality is clearly a growing concern in today’s society. Simply look at the figures; The richest 1 percent now hold 20 percent of the wealth in New Zealand, while 90 percent of the population owns less than half of the nation’s wealth as revealed by Oxfam research — early 2017. On a worldwide scale, they also found that just eight people own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity [1].

But is it really the technology booming state which we live causing this?

Bryn Jolfsson likes to think it is, in his words “The biggest factor is that the technology-driven economy greatly favors a small group of successful individuals by amplifying their talent and luck,” [2].

I hold a different viewpoint; technology is a tool, it’s how we’re using that tool which is the issue. The goal of this piece is to persuade you of this.

The fact is, the political elites have you fooled. Blaming technology is a clever distraction, not showing that inequality is politically driven and that political changes could lessen it.

Well, If it’s not technology, what really is fueling the economy?

Dopamine.

Successful individuals and those in political power are aware of this. One of the original developers of the Facebook newsfeed even said that the thing which made it successful wasn’t the software at all. But it was actually the scroll wheel on a mouse. Because with this your hand never has to leave its resting position, you just scroll and keep looking. You’ll see how this connects later in the piece.

First, I must uncover the negative influences of ICT on society in relation to dopamine and instant gratification. And how this is contributing to greater inequality and what steps should be taken to reduce these effects.


Dopamine and Instant Gratification

To start off; what is dopamine and instant gratification?

Dopamine is a neurochemical created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, motivation, seeking and reward. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behaviour [3].

Therefore, because of dopamine giving us the desire to seek and be rewarded is where the issue of instant gratification comes in.

‘Instant gratification’ is the immediate attainability of satisfaction and happiness. It is a way of experiencing pleasure and fulfillment without delay or patience because it provides a spike in dopamine without effort or discipline.

With the internet, twitter, and texting, instant gratification of your desire to seek is available at the click of a button. You can talk to anyone just by sending a text and they respond in a few seconds. All the information you could want is readily available by a google search.


How Does this Negatively Influence Society?

It gives users a false sense of fulfillment. People enjoy the rush of their phones vibrating with a new notification because it’s unpredictable, you don’t know exactly when they will, or who they will be from.

Robert Sapolsky talks about the idea of the “Magic maybe” When you look at your phone and maybe there’s a text there or maybe there’s not. When it does show up you get a great spike in dopamine.

But the feeling of that pleasure disappears quickly after it comes.

Therefore, it’s easy to get into a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a new notification.

You can now see how the scroll wheel was so pinnacle to Facebook’s success. This too is how social media has millions hooked.

In 2015, there was an estimated number of 2.03 Billion active social media users globally. Users aged between 15 and 19 spend on average at least three hours a day on social media and users aged between 20 and 29 spend about two hours a day [5].

So effectively, there are people who are wrongly using ICT and getting in dopamine loops without even knowing.

The effect?

It’s killing people’s desires, motivation, and goal-directed behaviour. Scientific research can back up this up in the example of rats conducted by Kent Berridge [6]. Whereby the dopamine neurons in rats were destroyed. The rats could still walk, chew, and swallow. But had lost their anticipation and desire to have food, so would starve to death. Not eating any food even when it was right under their noses. This is what’s causing the inequality.


The Causes of Inequality

You see, why be motivated to achieve a long-term goal when you can get that same satisfaction of fulfillment from a mobile device without leaving your seat?

More people these days are happy to be in a dead-end job or be unemployed sitting on government benefits. This allows people to quit on themselves. To become successful and make something of your life it takes sacrifice, it takes a lot of hard work and it takes dedication. For a lot of people, if they don’t feel results, they don’t see the results right away they want to quit because they think it’s not working.

An example of this is the highly talked about issue with young professionals today in the workplace who crave the gratification of a pay raise or promotion without patience. When they don’t see the results, the rewards, they become frustrated and at times quit their jobs. This getting them nowhere on the success ladder.

These days only a few people are actually striving to achieve their goals and becoming successful. That’s what’s partly causing the inequality because of the effect of ICT.

Another factor Legatum Institute talks about is the link between social well-being and economic development, they say the more social well-being flourishes, the more economic prosperity does too [7]. In other words, “social well-being and personal empowerment is a fundamental part of economic prosperity — not a result of economic prosperity.”

ICT hinders social wellbeing in many ways, as individuals become slaves to technology. That then having relevance in the inequality we’re seeing today.


What is the Solution?

Simple, STOP GIVING KIDS THESE DAMN DEVICES!

If they get you hooked at a young age, then they’ve got you for a long time.

There’s a drinking age, a gambling age. But there are no age restrictions on technology devices. We’re essentially allowing kids to use highly addictive drugs in the form of technology before their brains have developed and before they have any natural defences against them.

Per a survey of parents by Common Sense Media, this is certainly the case. They found babies and toddlers are even being given access to tablets and smartphones. In 2013, 38 percent of children under 2 had used a mobile device for media activity, up from 10 percent in 2011. More than 70 percent of children age 8 and under had used a mobile device for some type of media activity (such as playing games, using apps or watching videos) in 2013, again up from 38 percent in 2011 [8]. No doubt these figures have risen from then to 2017.

That’s why we’re seeing so many people with internet, social media and porn addictions. So, something ought to be done. It’s simply too easy now for users to change their state of consciousness with a device.

The government needs to implement age restrictions on various technology devices and like said in Rotman’s article “we must attempt to reform educational institutions.” He was talking more accessibility, I’m talking education. There is currently no mention of the addictive nature of technology in the New Zealand school curriculum. This needs to change.

Another idea Terry E. Robinson suggested is to adapt classroom and workplace behaviour to enhance natural dopamine mechanisms by designing activities that may increase dopamine signalling, such as unexpected gratification and rewards along the way to increase the desire of people to perform well.

These may be a few of many possible solutions.


In Conclusion

No doubt there are considerable changes to be made. But nothing’s going to change that inequality is politically driven.

So, the first change starts with you. Are you willing to rethink how you’re using ICT and think twice next time before aimlessly scrolling through Facebook?

The choice is there, cut a habit and change the way you live or continue to be like a pet rat in the cage of the elite. Do so and your own position on the inequality ladder will change as a consequence.

Not everything is a click away. The end satisfaction and rewards of patience and hard work are far greater than any from a screen.

Life is about the journey, not the outcome, and after all, what fun is a journey shaped by a virtual reality?