There are a multitude of explanations and theories for the addictive effects of social media and cell phone use. Two of the more popular ones include the behaviouralist’s stimulus-control theory and the highly addictive neurotransmitter, dopamine. The behaviouralist will boil down our behaviours to a series of stimuli and their conditioned responses — the phone dings, we pick up the phone and our behaviour is reinforced by the reward: someone has text us. The dopamine argument alleges that each ding, like, share and heart, is connected to a rush of dopamine that feels good. Dopamine is also connected to things like drugs, alcohol and gambling — in effect highly addictive activities. At the surface, both of these explanations make a lot of sense, I mean they perfectly explain what it feels like and what happens when we receive a notification, right?
I think the biggest problem I have with these theories is that it’s simplifying our brains, our behaviour and our lives into a series of oversimplified explanations. They’re suggesting that we’re merely pawns with no control over our reactions and highly liable to a conditioned set of stimuli or chemicals.
Are we just that simple?
Are we so fixated on trying to find a “solution” or “reason” for why we do the things we do that anything that is seen as an influencer is now the be-all and end-all of our being? “Oh that dopamine drug that’s why I can’t stop scrolling through Instagram.” “That’s why I keep picking up my phone — I’ve conditioned myself to respond to that sound.” When in reality maybe what we are really saying is “I am not responsible for my behaviour.” “I have no control over myself.”
Our brains are not that simple. I sure as heck hope our lives are not that simple.
Lately there seems to be a growing hysteria and uncertainty about the effects of the internet and social media on our future. Perhaps this fear is correlated to the oversimplified explanations that we’re using to justify our actions? It’s like we think we’re on this rocket-ship that’s getting projected into space picking up more and more speed and its drive, its thrust, its fuel, is completely based off of our involuntary actions. We feel like it’s spinning out of control and we completely forget that there is a control board right in front of us!
My Anthropology prof coined the phrase: “the myth of the white lab coat.” Essentially explaining that science and scientists are products of our society; that just because it’s right or it’s objective or they have a white lab coat on, does not mean that the evidence or explanation is anything more than our culture, of what we expect. So yes, there is scientific evidence that explains the effects of dopamine on our behaviour and social media use, and yes, countless experiments have been made that reinforce operant conditioning, but does that automatically make them perfect? Or just perfectly pertinent?
Simon Sinek The Millennial Question
Introduction to Learning and Behaviour by Russell A. Powell, P. Lynne Honey, Diane G. Symbaluk