Katina Michael, Associate Professor at the University of Wollongong's School Of Information Systems and Technology in Australia, has done extensive research on online usage and how it affects us. She explains that the attraction to social media is the same thing that attracted us to Pong, one of the first computer games ever invented – a tennis-like game where users had to hit back a ball against a computer-driven paddle.
"What made us move then – and what motivates us now – is a dopamine reaction, a dopamine fix that says 'react'," she says. "We enjoy reacting because we're human, we want to be engaged."
Experiments and MRI-based tests done on Twitter and Facebook users by neuroeconomist Paul Zak, discovered the brain interprets social media interactions just as it does "real world" ones through the release of the feel-good chemical oxytocin, the same chemical released during mother and baby bonding or when we eat food, fall in love, earn money or do anything that brings us pleasure.
STARVING FOR ACCEPTANCE
Each time we receive a notification or a "like" on social media, an area of our brain called the nucleus accumbens lights up to give us a sense of gratification which goes a long way to explain why social media is so appealing and why it can become all-consuming. The danger, explains Michael, is that people are opting for this online gratification at the expense of the real world.
"Researchers have said the internet gives us more of a dopamine kick than having chocolate, than having sex, than achieving high results, than winning a medal, these things we used to strive for that were so important to us a society," she says.
"Even contact between two people, the most intimate thing in the world, gets superceded, because people get more of a fix from friends or even strangers 'liking' them, than the person sitting next to them in the bed with a similar device. Even a cuddle now, is not the same as, 'Oh, 50 people just liked my photo'."
Michael adds that this can be problematic because people are starting to miss out on the true, physical sensations of needing cuddles or eye contact.
"We're starving for acceptance, but not from our own homes, which is the primary place we all sought comfort. Now we have this virtual space filled with millions of people and yet we don't feel accepted, we don't feel we belong, because we don't have that physical intimacy. People can tell you, 'you're great, I love you, you're the best', but we don't feel it. It's not a touch, a physical sensation."