Hijacking Happiness: How Social Media Hacked Your Happy Hormones To Get You Hooked Online

3 October 2023 |
Episode 15 |

Episode summary

Ever wondered why you can’t stay off social media, even when you turn off notifications and put your phone away? In this episode, I explain how platforms like Instagram and TikTok have hijacked your happiness hormones – dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins – to get you hooked on using social media, even when there are no external triggers driving you online. I explore the important role that these hormones play in your innate survival instincts as a human, and how social media has hacked into your brain to alter their natural levels, creating internal triggers for going online. I also challenge you to journal the thoughts and emotions you experience right before reaching for social media for 7 days, to see if you can identify your own internal triggers.

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • The reason you’re still going on social media, despite turning off all notifications, taking a digital detox break, or deleting your accounts
  • The four happiness hormones – dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins – and how they work together to ensure the survival of the human race
  • How social media mimics your real life experiences, affecting your natural levels and sources of these neurohormones
  • The surprising connection between survival behaviours and pleasurable feelings, and why your brain has created internal triggers for going on social media
  • The 7 day internal triggers challenge

Resources and tools mentioned:


Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. It’s been a little while. I hope that you’re doing really, really well. I hope you’ve enjoyed the summer. It probably feels a bit like a distant memory to most of you now. If you’re new to the podcast, then welcome. Welcome to our little digital wellness community. And if you’ve been here before, then welcome back. I’m really glad that you have come back to join me.

[00:01:01] And you will have noticed, obviously, that it’s been a little bit of time since I put out the last episode. I think it was back at the start of the summer. And you might have been wondering where I’ve been. It’s been a combination of things really. It’s a bit of the classic, work got a little bit busy, and initially I thought I would just miss a week.

[00:01:21] I just was really struggling to put an episode out that week. I had started preparing, but then one week became two weeks, and two weeks became three, and so on and so forth. And it sort of got harder to get back into, because I was out of the momentum that I was in, in putting out episodes every week for, for the first couple of months.

[00:01:42] When I sat down to really think about why I was, don’t know if it was procrastination, but just why I was not really getting back into the groove of things once work got a little bit less busy, I realised that I wasn’t really feeling right in myself. And I started to realise that perhaps I needed to do some other things to cultivate my own wellbeing, and basically practice what I preach.

[00:02:07] I really needed to just take care of myself. Something didn’t feel quite right. Nothing serious, nothing to be worried about. But just, I really enjoyed putting out the podcast and I know that podcasting is something that I really enjoy, but something didn’t feel like it was quite right.

[00:02:24] And when I sat down to think about it and really try and pick apart what was going on for me, I realised that some of it may have had to do with the authenticity of my voice and some of the communication style on the episodes. Which is not to say that all of the previous episodes aren’t authentic or that’s not my voice.

[00:02:44] It is me. It is me, I write my own podcast notes, and I prepare for each episode, and I decide what I’m talking about. But I think I got a bit inside my head and I thought, well, would I listen to my podcast? And I listen to lots of other podcasts, by lots of other amazing people, and a lot of them are far more established than me. And I think I found myself in a bit of a comparisonitis loop.

[00:03:10] I was really looking at what these people do and thinking, oh my gosh, I really wish that my podcast was like that. And it’s not. And I don’t know if I can get it to be. And that’s a dangerous game to play, whatever it is that you do in your life, but it’s a dangerous game to play when you are putting yourself out there.

[00:03:27] And I really had to kind of coach myself back from that space and realise that, really, this is about me and something that I’m really interested in. It’s about you guys, who I hope want to create healthier digital habits and build better balance in your lives with technology and, and me supporting you on that journey. And I realised that I’m also still very much at the beginning of my own podcasting journey with this podcast.

[00:03:57] And that means that I’m still kind of finding my voice. That means I’m still figuring out what the best way to share what I know and the things that I learn is with all of you guys and with my audience. And that’s okay. So, after kind of battling with all of that for a couple of months, I am back, and that’s the good news.

[00:04:18] So, you’re probably wondering what’s next after that little pause and what you can expect. And I guess the first thing to say is just, I’m really sorry if you were enjoying the podcast and you were getting into it. I have had a few people reach out to me and ask when I was coming back. So, here I am. Thanks for waiting!

[00:04:36] But we are basically back to our scheduled programming of a new episode each and every Tuesday, and I had to make a few changes to make that happen. I’ve changed my approach to production. I’ve now outsourced my editing, which means that I can focus on the thing that only I can do, which is preparing for the episodes and recording the episodes. Because editing was taking absolutely ages, a couple of hours just to make a 30 minute episode.

[00:05:03] I’m also going to stick with the short and sweet episodes of around 30 minutes each. Maybe some of them will be slightly longer, but I think that that really is going to work for me to be able to make sure that I’m sharing things with you in a way that is digestible, and that you can kind of take something actionable away from each episode. And help me to stick to keeping episodes out or coming out every single week.

[00:05:25] And the other thing that’s staying is that I’m keeping the weekly challenge that comes in each episode. I really want this to be a practical and actionable podcast that you can take something away and actually do something tangible with. So I think the challenge is a really great way to do that, and we’ll be keeping the room that’s inside of The Digital Diet Lounge, which is my virtual community, as a space where you can come and you can discuss the challenge.

[00:05:51] You can discuss your experiences of doing the challenge with other listeners, you can discuss the other things that we’ve talked about in each episode, and I will drop into that space too. So I will be there to kind of elaborate on some of the things that I’ve said, or support you with making these changes and taking these actions in your own life around your own digital wellness.

[00:06:11] And, as part of that, I really am going to lean more into my female focus. So if you’ve been around for any length of time or you’ve seen anything that’s kicking around on my website, you’ll know that I’m really passionate about helping other women. And so I’m leaning into that female focus, and one of the things that I’ve done is I’ve created what I’ve called the #TechTimeout Challenge.

[00:06:36] And the #TechTimeout Challenge is the only 30 day digital detox specifically for busy women, which is who most of my listeners are. So, if you’re someone who really feels like you might need a break, and you’re kind of fed up of all of the rings and the pings from all of these digital things that are in your life. But you find yourself thinking, “Oh, I could never take a digital detox” or, “I don’t have time for one,” this challenge is definitely for you.

[00:07:04] When you take part in the challenge, you basically ditch your devices once a day for 30 days, and it could be for 5 minutes, it could be for an hour, and during that time you complete one of 30 simple offline activities instead. And I’ve designed all these activities so that they will boost your physical, and your mental, and emotional health.

[00:07:28] They are all activities that are proven to do this and they will help you to reconnect to yourself. They’ll help you to revive the most important relationships in your life, and hopefully also help you to rediscover some of your old hobbies and pastimes, or to discover new passions along the way.

[00:07:45] And it’s so much fun. Trust me, you will be way more focused on enjoying these activities than you will be on the fact that you’re not connected and you’re not online. And I’ve tried to make this as easy as possible for you, so absolutely everything that you need is planned out.

[00:08:02] There is a guide which has got step-by-step instructions. There is a printable, ready-made digital detox plan that you can obviously download and print out. And there’s also a planning template for those of you that want a bit more control over what order you do each of the activities in, during those 30 days.

[00:08:20] Plus, there are loads of hints and tips, and I’ve also curated a list of helpful, practical tools and resources. So you’re pretty much guaranteed success. And the best part? It’s completely free. I feel so strongly about digital wellness and about the women in this community. I really wanted to create something outside of my paid coaching programmes and my retreats that would be really easy to follow, but still bring that impact and still bring that transformation in the way that you use technology in your life.

[00:08:52] So, if you are interested in doing the #TechTimeout Challenge, all you have to do is head to thedigitaldietcoach.com/techtimeout-challenge, and I’ll put a link in the show notes. And you sign up, you’ll get your free guide, you’ll get access to all the challenge tools and resources, and you will be set. You will be ready to go and you can start at any time.

[00:09:16] But, depending on when you’re listening to this episode, I will be doing coordinated challenges. So, I will be doing the #TechTimeout Challenge and I’m inviting you to do it along with me, and along with anybody else in the community who wants to take part. So, lots of us doing the challenge all together. There’s so much more power and so much more fun and accountability in community.

[00:09:38] I’m going to be starting challenges every six weeks, maybe every, I think every month might struggle with, but every six weeks to every other month. So basically, depending on whenever you’re listening to this, you will find a time where there is a coordinated challenge going on. So, head to thedigitaldietcoach.com/techtimeout-challenge, get your free guide, make sure you’ve got enough time to prep, and then you can follow along inside of The Digital Diet Lounge.

[00:10:06] Okay, so it’s time to get into this episode. But before I do, there are two things that I really want to recommend that you do. The first one is to hit the subscribe button on whichever podcast platform you’re listening on, so that you will automatically get notified each week when there’s a new episode, and you don’t miss any of the other digital wellness goodness that I have coming up on the show now that I’m back. And the second thing is to listen to Episodes 13 and 14, because that way you’re going to get all the pieces of this social media jigsaw puzzle that I am in the middle of piecing together.

[00:10:40] We started this mini social media series and I left in the middle. So I’m really sorry about that, but I’m back and we’re going to see this through. In case you don’t have time, or you’ve listened to the episodes and you don’t want to go back and listen to them, a quick recap for you.

[00:10:53] Episode 14, we talked about persuasive design and how social media companies deliberately build features into their platforms that are designed to keep you returning to those platforms as often as possible, and then to keep you on the platform for as long as possible once you’re there.

[00:11:09] And in Episode 13, we talked about why this is even their goal in the first place, because it’s definitely not yours. Nobody wakes up and says, “I want to spend as much time as possible on Instagram today.” And it’s because you are not the customer, you’re the product. The more time you spend on social media, the more behavioural data the platforms can gather about you, and the more advertising they can show you. Which, let me tell you, advertisers are lining up to pay social media platforms for, because otherwise they just don’t get access to you.

[00:11:39] And persuasive design itself is based on the principles of behavioural psychology. So, in using all these persuasive design features, the platforms are unconsciously training and teaching you to keep coming back, and to stick around for hours at a time. It’s not necessarily a conscious behaviour. And when I learned about this, I was already like, wow, mind blown. But it goes even deeper than this. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today.

[00:12:08] All of these persuasive design features on social media platforms are external triggers in your environment. So, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think to yourself, “hey, if I just step away from social media. If I close down my accounts and I turn off the notifications,” – which was the challenge for Episode 14 – “then I should be able to get my social media use under control, or just ditch social media completely, if that’s what I decide I want to do.”

[00:12:33] And it’s not impossible, it has been done. But if you’ve ever tried to do this, either by taking a social media break, or going on a digital detox, or even deleting your accounts and declaring that you’re leaving social media for good, then you’ll know that it’s not always that easy. And often what happens is people end up coming back to social media after these little hiatuses, and they end up spending even more time there than they were spending before.

[00:12:57] It’s a lot like when you do crash diets. I don’t know if anyone’s ever done a crash diet, but when you suddenly try and cut out major food groups, let’s say you do Atkins or Keto or something like that, and you just try and go cold turkey like, “I’m not eating carbs anymore, that’s it.” As soon as you reintroduce them, it’s like you can’t get enough of them.

[00:13:14] You, suddenly, that’s all you can have, that’s all you want to eat, that’s all you crave. And so, invariably, you end up spending more time, eating more carbs or whatever it is that you’ve blocked out of your diet, and then your weight goes the other way, which is obviously completely counterintuitive. It’s the same kind of thing. So, what’s going on?

[00:13:32] Well, if you’re not being exposed to persuasive design features when you’re having a break or you’re, you know, declaring that you’re leaving social media completely, why is it that you still find that you’re gravitating towards social media? And the answer actually lies in a couple of hormones, in your survival instincts as a human, and the internalisation of the triggers that make you go on social media. And if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking, well, Marisha, what the hell are you talking about? Then don’t worry, because that’s what I’m breaking down for you today.

[00:14:02] There are four key hormones that I’m going to talk about, and they are responsible for regulating your happiness, and your behaviour, and your decision-making. And they are endorphins, dopamine, which you’ve probably heard of, serotonin, and oxytocin. And they’re what’s known as neurotransmitters. They’re often called the happy hormones because, really, their release results in varying degrees and types of pleasure in your brain.

[00:14:27] Social media has essentially played havoc with your natural levels and your natural sources of these hormones, by creating a virtual space with all these different features that mimic your real life experiences with much greater frequency, and much more intensity, than you’re used to. And that causes these hormones to go up and down in a way that they never did before.

[00:14:48] And, unfortunately, the answer to this sort of chaotic up and down of those hormones, our answer to trying to get our hormones back to the levels where they should be and to be under control, is to keep going back on social media platforms for even more. It’s a bit like an abusive relationship or having Stockholm Syndrome. It’s actually quite toxic when you think about it.

[00:15:09] And it happens because, as a human, your brain is hardwired to promote the survival of the species. It’s encoded into each and every one of us that we need to stay alive, and we need to propagate our DNA through reproduction, so that the human race continues to thrive forever and a day.

[00:15:27] And, as a consequence of this, you are rewarded with good feelings whenever you perform behaviours that promote your own survival. Why? Well, because when something feels good, you’re obviously more inclined to repeat the behaviour that led to the good feeling. And if you do that, then you’re more likely to survive.

[00:15:45] So, many of the persuasive design features that stimulate the release of these four hormones in an effort to form and strengthen the neural pathways in your brain that are associated with using social media, end up reinforcing all of these behaviours until they become unconscious habits. So, let’s take a look at each hormone in turn.

[00:16:04] The first hormone, dopamine, which I said you’ve probably already heard a lot about. And I did talk about it actually myself in Episode 1, when we were talking about willpower. Dopamine is a neurohormone and it motivates you to keep seeking rewards, even when the pursuit of those rewards requires a lot of effort and a lot of energy.

[00:16:23] Now, today, loads of things feel rewarding, right? And some of those things are easier to get than others. And that can affect the choices that you make because you don’t always want to have to put in a lot of effort in order to get a reward. Dopamine is associated with food, it’s associated with exercise, with love, with sex, with gambling, with drugs, and now with social media. And we’re looking for the shortest and easiest path to reward because it’s supremely efficient.

[00:16:54] And it’s really easy for you to reach for your phone, and open up social media, and get rewarded with content from your family and your friends, and with likes and comments on your own posts. But back in the day when things were much more simple and we were kind of roaming around the earth as cave people, literally just trying to survive, we needed dopamine to motivate us to keep going after rewards like food, which are obviously much more important. Even if this involved hunting for days, and days, and days, and we were really hungry, and we were tired, and we wanted to give up. Because if we didn’t get food, we’d die, right? This is essential to our survival.

[00:17:29] So, what happens is dopamine gets released whenever there is evidence to suggest that you can expect a reward in your environment. And that makes your body release energy, so that you really invest in and commit to pursuing the reward, even if you’re feeling tired and feeling like you don’t want to put effort towards anything.

[00:17:48] And it’s that release of dopamine that creates feelings of joy in your brain, in your body. And joy is obviously highly desirable, right? We like to feel good. And in the context of social media, we are talking about what’s known as intermittent variable rewards, which are offered by the various platforms. Dopamine is being released by your brain in anticipation of what it thinks you might find when you open up Instagram, or Facebook, or whatever your social media platform of choice is.

[00:18:18] And even though this reward is not essential for your survival, like something like food or finding a romantic partner to reproduce with, your brain doesn’t know the difference. What your brain does recognise, however, is that the dopamine that it can get from opening up social media is easier and faster to get, than the joy and the sense of achievement that you might get from pursuing a longer term reward, over a longer period of time.

[00:18:43] And this is why sometimes you might have seen the dopamine you get from social media referred to as cheap dopamine. And the thing is that the larger a reward is, and the closer you get to it, the more dopamine is released. And what could be closer than that little dopamine-inducing machine, otherwise known as your smartphone, that’s always in your pocket?

[00:19:04] So you can see why constantly going on social media starts to become attractive from your brain’s perspective. But that’s not all. Your brain is super resourceful and it likes to be efficient. It’s not content with going after the cheapest source of dopamine going, it wants to get it as quickly as possible too.

[00:19:23] So each time dopamine is released in relation to the anticipation of a reward, and then you get the reward, your brain sort of takes a mental note and it starts creating and strengthening the neural pathways in your brain that are associated with getting that reward. And since all those persuasive design features on social media have got you going on social media a lot, all of those pathways are now pretty damn strong.

[00:19:47] And what this means is that the next time you see signs of a reward that you’ve previously experienced, like social media, your brain quickly fires up all those neural pathways and responds by releasing dopamine, so that you go after that reward. And that’s how we start to internalise the triggers.

[00:20:04] So, now you don’t have to get a social media notification on your phone anymore. You just have to see your phone and your brain makes the connection all by itself. You get this huge surge of dopamine because you expect that there will be something there waiting for you that’s rewarding, if you pick up your phone and you open up social media. So you feel motivated to pick it up, and you start scrolling through your social media platform of choice and suddenly hours go by.

[00:20:29] Now, the trouble with this is that what’s waiting for you on social media isn’t always rewarding. Let’s say that you go online and you have no new friends or followers, or there are no new pictures that you’ve been tagged in. There’s no new fresh likes or comments on your posts. Guess what happens? Your dopamine levels come crashing down.

[00:20:51] And they crash down so hard that they go even lower than they were in the initial circumstances before you picked up your phone. And this is what’s known as a negative prediction error. So, your brain got all excited because it saw your phone and it predicted that you would find something rewarding inside of your social media app, but it got it wrong.

[00:21:10] And it’s this dip in dopamine which sends a negative feedback signal to your brain, and that creates a loop that motivates you to go again and keep seeking a reward from social media, even though this requires effort. Because we don’t like to feel down. We like that feeling of reward and joy.

[00:21:27] And so you can start to see how you keep going on social media, and the platform keeps presenting you with features that encourage you to invest your time there. They keep presenting you with recommended accounts to follow of people that you might know or brands that you might like. They keep asking you to add more things to your profile or to set your preferences. They keep showing you content related to things that you might like, based on things that you’ve spent time looking at before. And all of these things keep improving the experience for the next time that you log on.

[00:22:00] And in that time, you are getting so much pleasure from this experience because your brain is absolutely swimming in dopamine, that the neural pathways associated with it are getting stronger and stronger. And you keep going round, and round, and round this cycle, until eventually you don’t need external triggers to make you go on social media anymore.

[00:22:19] You don’t need to receive a notification, or an email, or a link to a funny TikTok video, because your brain just associates being on social media with pleasure. And it expects that the action of going on social media will bring rewards. So the trigger starts to become an internal feeling or a thought that you should go online. In other words, you’ve internalised the trigger.

[00:22:40] And once this happens, you can remove all the external triggers you like, and still find yourself gravitating towards social media, which is the position that most social media users now find themselves in. So, if you’re not really sure why, but you just keep picking up your phone and opening up your social media apps, then dopamine is probably to blame.

[00:23:00] We’ve essentially all become dopamine junkies. And if you only take one thing away from today’s episode, it’s this dopamine-driven quest for reward and pleasure. But, as I said, there’s more hormones, and dopamine isn’t acting alone. So let’s talk about these other hormones. They all have at least an equal, or sometimes a lesser, role to play in our subconscious decisions to engage with social media.

[00:23:23] Endorphins motivate you to ignore physical pain and to keep going, and that’s supposed to help you escape situations that threaten your survival, even when you’re injured. If you experience a physical pain, that will trigger the release of endorphins, and it creates in you this sort of state of oblivion. This numbing feeling in your mind and body, so that you don’t feel the pain and you can keep going until you reach safety.

[00:23:45] Now, you can see how this might have been useful back in the day. Once again, you are in your cavewoman days, you’re out hunting for food, and I don’t know, suddenly got into a bit of a scrap with a bear or a lion. The release of endorphins would mask the pain of your injuries, so that you could run away and find yourself in a much safer space. Or run away back to your little enclave of people and warn everybody else that there’s a bear or a lion on the loose.

[00:24:10] And this masking of the pain takes the form of a feeling of euphoria. It’s this intense excitement and happiness. It’s a very short-lived feeling because you need to feel and react to pain, because that also has a survival value. You know, if you have a gaping wound from fighting a bear or a lion and you don’t feel the pain, and you don’t notice, you don’t do anything about it, it’s going to get infected, right?

[00:24:34] But euphoria, and intense excitement and happiness, this feeling, this really, really powerful, pleasurable feeling masks all that pain. It’s the same thing that happens to runners. It’s known as runner’s high. You might wonder why people run marathons when it looks like actually it’s quite painful by the end of it. But there’s a high that comes from it.

[00:24:57] There’s a high that masks that pain, and a joy and a sense of achievement that you get, and that’s all endorphins at work. But it will only come from running something like a half marathon or a marathon. If you go for a regular daily run, it doesn’t make you high, right? You have to push beyond your capacity to the point of actually physically distressing your body to get that good feeling. And that’s not necessarily a good way to promote survival.

[00:25:24] Endorphins didn’t evolve to motivate you to inflict pain on yourself or torture yourself by running a marathon, if that’s not really something you want to do. It just evolved to help you escape pain. So, how does this work in the context of social media? Well, it’s actually a little bit more subtle.

[00:25:41] When you laugh, or when you cry, it releases small amounts of endorphins because your body is internally convulsing and that is a small state of physical distress. So, when you view social media content that makes you laugh or makes you cry, which are both quite strong human emotions and reactions, your brain releases endorphins. And that leads to this feeling of euphoria, which is essentially another form of pleasure.

[00:26:06] And since we’re always seeking pleasure, once again, it seems to our brains that there’s some kind of survival value in consuming this kind of content. So we keep doing it. The trouble with this is that the reverse is also true. Most of us experience some form of comparisonitis when we use social media, and I talked about this at the beginning of the episode.

[00:26:25] I felt massive comparisonitis when I was comparing how I was showing up on my podcast to the other podcasters that I listened to. But comparisonitis leads to negative feelings and it’s because we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. If you see posts from friends or from influencers that appear to have more exciting and fulfilling lives than yours, it can create feelings of envy or inadequacy, which can lower your own endorphin levels.

[00:26:52] And because your brain is already swimming in dopamine from using social media so much, your brain starts to become less responsive to both dopamine and endorphins over time. Now, why is this relevant? Well, it’s relevant because it means that you are less able to experience pleasure, and therefore your own wellbeing is impacted.

[00:27:11] You will not get the same high from the same experiences that you once found pleasurable, over time. And guess what most of us think the remedy is? Yep, you guessed it; even more time spent online, on social media, trying to get back to that same high. And I’ll be talking in a future episode of the mini-series about the specific impacts of social media on mental health. But you can at least start to see how you can have too much of a good thing, and how this is affecting your brain in a way that you probably weren’t aware of.

[00:27:43] Next up, we’ve got oxytocin, which is sometimes known as the cuddle hormone. Oxytocin is a hormone that’s responsible for motivating you to build social alliances, which, at least in the beginning, was the original intention of social media networks. Oxytocin helps you to trust other people enough to form a bond with them, and that results in attachments that provide safety and ensure your survival.

[00:28:09] And there are lots of things that would traditionally cause the release of oxytocin. Could be physical touch, it could be meeting someone that you think you can trust, and having that trust reciprocated by another person. That creates an attachment and it causes in you feelings of belonging. And obviously feeling like you belong is pleasurable and it’s desirable, because who doesn’t want to feel like they belong?

[00:28:33] Each release of oxytocin links to active neurons, which are a type of cell in your brain, which makes you start to associate those feelings with specific individuals. And that’s how you create that attachment and that social trust with specific people. And that means that the next time you’re reunited with those people, you get oxytocin released again.

[00:28:54] Now, back in the day, all of these trusted attachments guaranteed your survival, right? You could trust your friends to share their food and other resources with you. You could trust them to fight off that lion or bear, or to stand watch when it was their turn and alert you if a lion or a bear was heading your way. There was an innate survival value in building social alliances with other people. A sort of safety in numbers kind of thinking. But that isn’t all.

[00:29:20] Reproductive behaviours trigger a greater release of oxytocin than companionship because, of course, reproduction means DNA propagation and it means the survival of the human race. And this might not be scientifically accurate, so let me just put this out there before I say it, but it always makes me think of those people that ditch their friends as soon as they get a new partner. I’m always convinced that it’s just oxytocin at work.

[00:29:44] Oxytocin also surges in women who are giving birth in order to facilitate labour and breastfeeding, and that motivates mums to guard the safety of their newborns. You also get oxytocin surges in newborns so they can form attachments to their mothers. Although, later in life, it motivates them to leave the safety of their mums and their parents in pursuit of reproductive opportunities, which are obviously central to their survival, and the survival of the human race.

[00:30:10] And again, this is probably not scientifically accurate, but it always makes me think of all of those mama’s boys that don’t want to leave the safety of the nest and grow up, or expect their wives or girlfriends to do everything that their mothers used to do for them. I am convinced there is some sort of oxytocin malfunctioning going on here too.

[00:30:27] Now, you might be thinking that all of these oxytocin-inducing interactions are real life physical ones. So, how does this work online? And essentially, social media networks have created a virtual space for interactions that mimic real life interactions, which means that your brain now responds in the same way, for the same reasons.

[00:30:47] Social media provides you with a sense of social connection and a sense of community. So, for example, seeing photos of your friends or loved ones, being a part of a group or a community, even if it’s with strangers but those strangers are very like-minded people. If you start getting supportive comments or messages on your social media profiles or under your posts, all of that can promote feelings of some kind of attachment and social bonding, and trigger the release of oxytocin.

[00:31:15] Social media also helps to facilitate feelings of trust and empathy by creating a space for you to share personal stories and experiences, for you to express your emotions, and for you to connect with other people who have had similar experiences. And all of these acts create that sense of trust and that sense of empathy, which can promote the release of oxytocin.

[00:31:35] So, it’s really a bit of a playground, social media is, for oxytocin. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. Oxytocin is known as the cuddle hormone, the love hormone, and let’s face it, who doesn’t want a little more love? The difficulty comes in the form of reduced face-to-face interactions because social media has, in many cases, replaced face-to-face interactions completely.

[00:31:57] And because physical touch is one of the most powerful triggers of oxytocin release, but we’re not putting ourselves in spaces where physical touch is a possibility. Consensual, of course, but we’re not putting ourselves in those spaces anymore, it results in a lack of true social bonding and lower levels of oxytocin.

[00:32:14] We’ve all got friends that we’re really only friends with on social media, but we’d never dream of meeting one-on-one in real life. And we follow each other’s lives so closely online that sometimes we feel like we’re connected to someone and we know them, when what we’re seeing on social media is really just a curated snapshot of their real life.

[00:32:32] But we’re spending so much time online on social media that we’re not getting that oxytocin from real life interactions and nurturing our real life relationships. And so, once again, this creates inside of us an internal trigger. And instead of reaching out to our friends and family, and hugging the people that we love, we end up going back online in search of connection with other people to get that oxytocin hit.

[00:32:56] And, possibly more disturbingly, because social media can act as a platform for harassment and cyberbullying, which obviously leads to feelings of isolation, and stress, and anxiety for people that are on the receiving end. In these instances, the release of oxytocin can be reduced. And when that happens, those people can find it even harder to form social connections both on- and offline. There is a much lower capacity and a willingness to trust, which is a huge part of forming social attachments and social bonding. So, that’s oxytocin.

[00:33:34] Last, but not least, we have serotonin. Serotonin is connected with social dominance. It motivates you to seek respect from other people. From a survival perspective, social dominance is important because the more dominant you are, the more visible you are, and the more respect you’re able to command from others. And when you command that respect, that means that your mating opportunities are likely to be much broader. So you can take your pick of romantic partners.

[00:34:03] And it means that you’re less likely to get challenges and threats against your survival, because no-one really wants to go up against you. So that means you’re better able to protect yourself and your family, and again, ensure the continued propagation of your DNA and the survival of the human race.

[00:34:19] So as people, we’re always looking for ways to achieve social dominance and command social respect. And when you do receive social respect, it triggers the release of serotonin, creating these feelings of dominance and this sense of security, because you really feel comfortable that you can get access to all the resources that you need to survive, even when the supply is limited.

[00:34:39] And these feelings of dominance then sort of keep reinforcing yourselves and make you seek out even more social respect. Which means you end up constantly scanning and reassessing your competitors and your environment, to determine if you hold a strong or a socially dominant position. If you do determine that you’re stronger and you’re more likely to dominate in a particular environment, then you get a serotonin surge, and that causes you to move towards the resources that you need in pursuit of your own survival.

[00:35:09] Let’s say back in the cave days, you and your cave buddy have both got your eye on the same potential partner. There’s a sizing up that takes place between you and, if you think that your chances outweigh your cave buddy’s in the romance stakes, your serotonin surges and you make a move on that potential mate. Because reproduction is ultimately the most important thing that’s necessary to ensure the survival of the human race.

[00:35:32] And this dominance, this surge that makes you go after and win the romantic partner, it feels good, right? Winning and getting respect feel good. And in the context of social media, measuring and exerting your dominance, and the pleasurable feeling that you get from doing it, shows up in a few different ways.

[00:35:50] Social media has, first of all, made it easier than ever before to basically size up your competition and scan your environment. You just log on, and you click, and you can see everything all at once. You can see what your peers are doing and you can attribute some form of standardised measurement to it.

[00:36:06] So, numbers of followers and the amount of engagement that you get with your posts and content. So, likes, comments, shares versus everybody else that you’re competing against. And if you go on social media, and you start comparing yourself to everyone else and you feel like you come out on top, then your serotonin levels will surge.

[00:36:24] But the reverse is also true. If you’re on social media, constantly comparing yourself to other people and experiencing feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem, so basically feeling like you’re not dominant in your environment and you’re not able to get or not deserving of social respect, that can lower your serotonin levels.

[00:36:45] And you probably won’t be surprised to hear this, but serotonin has been linked to and studied for its role in mood disorders like depression. In fact, there’s a whole class of antidepressant drugs, SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, that are designed to act on these pathways. So, the release and the presence of serotonin is very strongly connected with these good feelings of pleasure.

[00:37:06] And that might help to explain, at least in part, why we feel the need to go online and proverbially beat our chests, and to talk about ourselves and make sure that everyone knows about our achievements. Even when no-one asked. Instagram doesn’t know that you ate dinner at the hottest restaurant in town last night, where there is currently a six-month waiting list for a table. It doesn’t send you a notification saying, “Hey, we noticed you were here. Why not upload a picture?”

[00:37:30] Although to be honest, saying that out loud, it wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t far off from being released in the future. But you do that yourself, right? You do it to exert social dominance and command respect, and tell people you’re cool, and you’re well connected and important, and you can afford to pay $30 or £30 for a side salad with three leaves, all in the name of haute cuisine.

[00:37:51] That’s what happens when you put up that picture, and positive social media interactions, like receiving supportive comments, or compliments, or messages, then boost your serotonin levels. You also get a serotonin boost if you engage in positive activities on social media, so if you are expressing gratitude, or sharing these positive experiences, or helping people. But a lot of the serotonin surges come from this beating of the chest, this shouting. This kind of explains, in many ways, how and why people become addicted to being influencers.

[00:38:24] Now, outside of inherently creating the space to command respect and to exert your social dominance, social media platforms do deliberately include features that tap into your serotonin pathways. And it can be so subtle that you probably haven’t even noticed. So, for example, LinkedIn will encourage you to list skills on your profile and to request endorsements and testimonials from your peers and your connections.

[00:38:48] The resulting behaviour is triggered by serotonin release because you feel motivated to demonstrate dominance in your chosen career field, by listing publicly all your relevant skills. And you also get this dopamine-driven desire for social validation by seeking public confirmation of your abilities from your peers, in the form of testimonials and endorsements.

[00:39:10] And I use this example, because I think it highlights two really important points before we wrap up this episode. Number one, the neurohormones can, and do, impact each other. All of these neural pathways that we’ve been talking about the hormones act on, they’re not separate systems. There are connections between them and, without going too heavily into the exact science of it, a rise or a fall in one of the hormones can, in itself, act as a trigger for another. So, we’ve just already talked about how there is a connection between dopamine and serotonin, and that has been studied.

[00:39:41] But number two, it means that persuasive design features, and your experiences on social media, can impact more than one neurohormone at a time. It’s not a case of one feature, one neurohormone surge. In fact, your serotonin levels are impacted by many of the same things that your oxytocin levels are impacted by, in the context of social media.

[00:40:04] So, feelings of isolation and loneliness can lower your serotonin levels, as well as your oxytocin levels. Because it’s social interactions and human connections that are as much an indicator of your level of social dominance and your ability to command social respect amongst your peers, as it is an indication of the existence and the strength of bonds and attachments that will provide you with safety and security.

[00:40:29] It gets a bit more complex than it sort of just being a one hormone, one feature, one pathway, one surge. It’s much more complicated than that. Each of the happy hormones turns on for a very specific survival-related reason. And then it turns off, so that it’s ready to react to the next survival opportunity or threat that comes your way.

[00:40:48] And when a happy hormone surge ends, unhappy chemicals get your attention. And because we, as humans, are always striving to eliminate unhappy chemicals, or at least mask them with happy hormones, we find ourselves on social media all the time. Because social media has made it possible to do that faster, and with much less effort, than our evolutionary ancestors were able to. We don’t have to go outside and hunt. We don’t have to go outside and look for a mate. We don’t have to go for a run.

[00:41:18] So, as you can see, it’s not just the effect of external triggers in your environment and persuasive design features that will influence your behaviour when it comes to social media. There’s also a hell of a lot happening internally inside your brain from neuroscience perspective, some of which is very much dependent on the exact way that you’re choosing to use social media in your life. But, at least this helps explain why simply turning off your notifications or deleting social media apps for three days doesn’t automatically lead to a permanent reduction in your social media screen time.

[00:41:50] Not only does this brain activity contribute towards getting you hooked on using social media platforms in the first place, but it also has very significant implications for your mental and emotional wellbeing, even when you’re not using social media. And we’ll be talking about how to minimise some of these effects in an upcoming episode.

[00:42:07] But this episode wouldn’t be complete without this week’s challenge. As always, it’s an easy, but an important one. And the goal of it is really to heighten your awareness of what your internal triggers for going on social media might be, because for most of you listening, these triggers are going to be very subconscious and probably not something that you normally give much thought to.

[00:42:27] And the only way to really start taking back control of your social media use is to know and understand what triggers you for going there in the first place, beyond just the notifications. Because, as I’ve said, most of us are past that point by now. So, your challenge this week is to keep a note of the thoughts and the emotions that you’re feeling each time you feel compelled to open up social media.

[00:42:49] You don’t have to write reams and reams, and you can keep your notes on your phone, if you like. Don’t feel that you have to write them down manually or go and buy a brand new notebook just for this purpose. Unless, of course, you have a stationery addiction like I do, in which case, please totally take this as a sign that you need to buy more stationery.

[00:43:06] And, as you’re doing this, remember that thoughts and emotions can be both positive and negative. So, you might be wondering whether your friend has posted the great picture that they took of you when you were out celebrating their birthday at the weekend, and open up Instagram. You might go on to YouTube or TikTok because you’re feeling bored and you want to be entertained by something funny.

[00:43:26] Maybe you got a promotion or you finished a really big and important project, and you want to go on LinkedIn to tell your network about it. Or maybe you’re feeling a bit low or lonely, or like you’re not where you should be, and you find yourself going on Facebook to social stalk people that you went to school or college with to see how they’re doing now, comparatively.

[00:43:43] Really take the time to acknowledge what thoughts and feelings you’re having right before you reach for social media. And, for bonus points, see if you can identify what hormone or what combination of hormones, so dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin, that these thoughts and feelings are likely connected to.

[00:44:01] The place to let me know how you get on, and to connect with other listeners taking part in the challenge and to discuss everything that we’ve talked about in this episode is in The Digital Diet Lounge. So, if you’re new around here, The Digital Diet Lounge is my dedicated community space for all things digital wellness. I will put a link to it in the show notes.

[00:44:20] And you can find the show notes over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/015. That’s it for this week’s episode. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it. I really enjoyed being back and I’m really excited for what’s to come. I hope that I’ve helped you demystify the inner workings of your brain when it comes to social media. I’m not a neuroscience expert, but I do find this kind of stuff absolutely fascinating, and I hope that you found it interesting too.

[00:44:48] I have to say, again, that it really feels good to be back, and there’s heaps more to come. Not just in this mini social media series, but in general. So, make sure that you subscribe, or follow, or whatever the button says on the platform that you’re listening on, because I don’t want you to miss a thing I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little bit of your day with me, and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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