Have you ever wondered what attracts us towards social media? Is it the fact that it helps us connect with our family and friends or do we use it to get information & news about the world? Both of these are the reasons why we use social media. But these are not the reasons why we spend (or waste) hours on social media. The real reason why we like to scroll our feed for hours, post pictures, comment on other posts (whether relevant or irrelevant) is because of the social reward system involved in these platforms.
This social reward system has many negative effects on us. It not only makes us waste our time but it also affects our mental health and our real-life social behavior. To understand how this type of social reward system impacts us we need to understand the basic design of social media.
Design of social media platforms
Many of us don’t know how social media platforms are designed. If we understand the science and psychology used in the design of social media, we will be able to use the same in a rather productive and cautious manner.
The brains behind every social media platform know how to make their platform more engaging, as their entire revenue model is based on how much time a person spends on their platform. According to the website whotargets.me, Facebook earns around 1 cent for every 1 minute a US user spends his/her time. Or 0.2 cents for every 1 minute an Asia Pacific user spends his/her time.
In an interview, the Founding President of Facebook- Sean Parker said that “The thought process was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”
To make sure people spend hours on social media, the developers use the concept of 'dopamine loop'.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is an important chemical secreted in our brain that is responsible for any kind of motivating behavior. It is the same chemical that helps us to form good or positive habits like exercising or studying but it is also responsible for different types of bad or negative habits like addiction to alcohol or drugs. Whenever we do something rewarding, dopamine gets secreted into our brain that makes us do things again and again.
Dopamine release is not a bad thing at all as it helps us in our everyday life by motivating us to do important life processes. But unfortunately, this concept is misused by social media companies to increase our engagement time on social media. This is done by using the concept of dopamine loop in the form of the social reward system.
Social Reward & Dopamine
To understand how the present social reward system in most of the social media platforms use the concept of dopamine we should listen to what the former Vice President of Facebook- Chamath Palihapitiya, has said in an interview:
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.”
But how do social media platforms create dopamine-driven feedback loops? This is done in the form of a social reward system- i.e. based on likes, comments, and shares.
How the present Social Reward System Affects our Mental Health?
Have you wondered why we get excited whenever we see the red dot on our notification bar on social media platforms? It is again the dopamine that makes us excited about such notifications and demands more likes, shares, and comments in the future. As soon as we get some notifications, dopamine gets released in our brain and we get excited and motivated to get more rewards. This is what is known as ‘instant gratification’, which means rewards without delay.
This dopamine-driven reward system is so dangerous that Harvard scientists say that the dopamine released while using social media is similar(though not as intense) to dopamine released while doing drugs like cocaine. This is the common reason why people are so desperate to get likes on their pictures that they even promote or pay for buying likes.
Nowadays, it is also common for teenagers to be anxious if they are not getting a good number of likes on their posts. This is all because of the present social media reward system that is entirely focused on gaining more likes and getting a kind of recognition in the online community.
Because of the present system of social reward, the younger generations are giving more preference to social media instead of their real life. They are living in a virtual world where their entire purpose becomes to impress others and get digital recognition. Problems like overthinking, negative thoughts, inferior complex, etc. are very common in highly active social media users.
Social media companies that used to claim to connect people and positively help the society, unfortunately, are ending up in deteriorating the mental health of their users. Also, it has been found that social media websites like Tiktok, Facebook, Instagram, etc. are decreasing our attention span. This means a person’s ability to concentrate on any particular activity decreases.
There are tons of other problems associated with the current system of social rewards which suggests the need to change this kind of system.
What can be done?
The present form of reward system used by most of the social media platforms is having a negative impact instead of helping us to find solutions to our problems. There is a need to present a better form of social reward system. This can be done by not only making the interface more user friendly but also by changing the basic design of the social media platform.
Now&Me - An Example of Change
An example of such a system is the platform on which you are currently reading this article. Now&Me is a free to use platform which has no dopamine based reward system. This means the intention of the developers is not to make you waste your time but instead help you in solving your day to day problems.
The conventional system of likes is not present on this platform which helps users to not feel inferior in any way. While most of the social networking websites are adding stress and anxiety in our lives, Now&Me is helping us to curb all these negativities.
If we consider platforms like Facebook, expressing our thoughts, opinions and problems is not an easy task. The reason is that many people might comment on your post just to gain some attention or to show their online reach. Many will not bother to help you as they might think that you’re trying to gain some attention, which is common on social media platforms. There is a possibility that many will react with a laughing emoji, ignoring the severity of your problem. Yes, some will genuinely help you but the percentage of such people will be very low.
While if we consider a platform like Now&Me where one cannot only present his/her problems anonymously but also expect a genuine solution. People will be providing their opinions and helping you without any personal gains or social rewards. So, it is important to change social media platforms and make them free from the ‘likes’ based reward systems.
Also the interface i.e. the appearance of all the major platforms needs a change. Many platforms have a facility of popping sounds or red dots whenever a notification occurs. And most of the time these notifications are not even related to the user or are irrelevant to the user. But, these notifications and 'pop' sounds again make the users excited and make them expect something, which is no more than likes or comments. This again starts the dopamine loop and decreases our attention span or distracts us.
No doubt that social media came into our lives as a way to connect us with the world, but unfortunately due to many reasons the developers of social media platforms have diverted from this cause. Nowadays, social media platforms are causing us many troubles and the primary reason for these troubles is the social reward system involved in these websites. The usage of dopamine based social reward system is causing a negative impact on our mental health and giving us problems like depression, anxiety, stress, a decrease of attention span, impatience, etc.
Considering these problems, we need to change the conventional reward system, which is based on likes, on social media platforms. This can be done by changing the basic design of social networking websites and providing a dopamine free social reward system. A great example of such a platform is Now&Me, which focuses on a 'like-free' environment and allows people to express themselves without bothering about likes. But not only the internal design of the platforms needs a change but also the physical appearance (interface) needs to be improved.
Yes, it will not be easy to implement and change the reward systems on existing platforms. But still, an effort needs to be done from these companies as this can help people in expressing themselves more freely and it will help them in improving their mental health, which seems to be deteriorating in the existing system.
Edited by Annanya Chaturvedi