Dopamine and Reward: The Story of Social Media

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc


September 22, 2021

How often do you find yourself on social media? The first thing I do when I wake up is check my email and text messages, as well as my Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram notifications.

Some 150,000 messages are shared on Facebook each minute; 293 million daily active users worldwide were recorded on Snapchat during the second quarter of 2021; 127.2 million monthly active users in the United States are projected to be on Instagram by 2023.

Social media has gained the hearts and wonder of many around the world. It's absolutely incredible how ingrained it has become in our lives as a medium for creativity, outlet for communication, and platform for information. In fact, these online network tools have now become essential during COVID-19 to ensure productive workflow, keep in touch with our loved ones, and, overall, maintain social capital. Social media has truly emerged as a powerful form of living beyond our physical selves. 

Yet, increased (and addictive) social media use is associated with negative health outcomes, especially among adolescents. For example, in a study reporting parent and adolescent recounts of social media use, it was reported that social media use was associated with hyperactivity/impulsivity, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and a fear of missing out. Furthermore, a meta-analysis investigating the relationship between social media use and depressive symptoms among adolescents found a small but significant and positive relationship between the two. However, additional research is required to elucidate this association. 

Notwithstanding, the addictive nature of social media has previously been called out as analogous to the addictive nature of gambling. Let's think about it. Whether you're on Instagram, TikTok, or a similar platform, you can't help but scroll from one video to the next. It's one 5- to 10-second video after the next, and before you know it, you've spent the past hour going through random videos — but you can't stop. Why is that so?

Social media actually "rewires" our brain such that we expect instant gratification. In other words, when we get a notification, message, like, or share, we expect fast and short-term pleasure/reward because the brain will produce a "hit of dopamine." However, it is important to note that the reward system is not delimited to the dopaminergic pathway and, in fact, should be understood as a complex network system (eg, governed by changes in brain morphology through addiction and excessive behavior). Given the quick pace of the social media world, the reward pathways in our brain change and there's an increasing demand for attention, perpetuating an addictive mindset. 

When we refresh our page, we expect instant gratification. But what happens when we don't get a like, or a message, or some sort of "reward"? Recounts of social media use by adolescents have likened online attention to popularity. Accordingly, a lack of constant attention on social media has created a vicious cycle of anxiety, loneliness, and depression due to a failure to receive "virtual" reward. Taken together, social media may be harmful by distorting our self-image, and while social media platforms help connect us, they can also ironically make us feel isolated, lower our self-confidence, and diminish our overall sense of well-being. 

As the platforms for communication and information have evolved so rapidly over the past decade, there is a need to establish boundaries between what is beneficial and what is potentially detrimental to our mental health. While social media companies should play a role in mitigating addictive social network behavior, it would also seem counterintuitive to the general business model. In that case, who takes charge? Perhaps teachers, guardians, healthcare providers, and the government need to play a role in teaching and training individuals how to manage their social media consumption. This multifaceted problem requires a multidisciplinary approach.

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About Leanna Lui
Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc candidate. Her interests include mood disorders, health economics, public health, and applications of artificial intelligence. In her spare time, she is a fencer with the University of Toronto Varsity Fencing team and the Canadian Fencing Federation.


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