For years now, Facebook has affected our emotions, relationships and social
interactions. Raising the alarm to its incredible influence, and in
particular, its possible effects on the human brain, is Sean Parker – one
of its original founders.

During a conference organized by Axios at the National Constitution Center
in Philadelphia (USA) Parker, former founder of Napster and among the first
to promote the development and launch of Facebook, stated in no uncertain
terms that “Facebook exploits human psychology, and God knows what it is
doing to our children”.

In all respects, the famous social network seems like a great social
experiment that is transforming society. Our emotions and our capacity for
analysis are becoming increasingly shaped through a digital society that
mostly develops, compares and interacts within the confines of this
network, so powerful and in some ways worrisome. Even for those who founded
and nurtured it during the early stages.

Is Social Media a drug?

It was Parker himself who defined Facebook as a “loop of social validation,
able to exploit the flaws of human psychology”. In other words, Facebook –
like all other social networks – takes advantage of the vulnerability of
human psychology to create a strong dependence through the “likes”,
“comments” and “sharing” mechanisms.

Let’s look at a few examples. Have you ever wondered why we constantly
check our smartphones? It’s probably because we are waiting for a message
from an important person, or keeping an eye on how many people are
commenting on our Facebook status. A typical example of social conditioning
is the case of Wattsapp’s ” blue double ticks”. Who hasn’t once said
something like -“Unbelievable! They have seen my message but not responded

But the most surprising thing, and this is the real point, is our emotional
reaction to everything we share online. If our followers respond
positively, we are happy. However, if we don’t get many likes or shares, we
feel insufficiently appreciated by our virtual community, or worse still,
ignored. Sean Parker got it in one: Facebook and all the other socials push
us to the search for a continuous social approval of themselves by our
network of virtual contacts. We want to have consensus, to be shared,
because this generates in us pleasure and self-gratification.

But what does this chemistry of happiness depend on? From dopamine. The appreciation of something we shared via
social networks generates dopamine,

a powerful neurotransmitter, which is able to stimulate our emotions,
giving pleasure and satisfaction

, and raising our mood. It’s no exaggeration to say that social networks
are addictive and condition our mood daily.

Facebook is changing the way we learn

But it doesn’t stop there. There is growing suspicion that Facebook may
also influence the way we learn, memorize, relate to others and even
reason. In short, it’s changing our brains.

Every update, every change of rules dictated by Facebook affects the
interactions and the involvement within the social and, consequently, also
affects brains, especially those of younger users. What is at stake are the
dynamics of learning and relationship and the ability to concentrate.

Cognitive learning is accomplished by organizing information, making
comparisons, forming new associations and it is guided by past and present
experiences. But on a regular basis these scenarios are changed in
Facebook, the rules of the game change, and this makes it impossible to
build linear learning over time.

Even the definition of one’s own identity no longer passes through the
group of peers, since this is no longer identifiable and “controllable”.

In short, if it is true that technology and progress are unstoppable, it is
also true that we should monitor and carefully observe what is happening
online. In these environments that are fluid enough to slip through your
hands, existing rules and norms are crumbling, and we don’t know how this
will impact young users in the future.

Facebook and brains: what the latest research shows

Facebook communities, groups, interactions seem to have replaced the real
and tangible reference group of friends. But the effects of the network can
be far more serious than mentioned by Sean Parker.

According to researchers at the Shanghai University Medical School: in the brain of
Internet-dependent users, there is an abnormal quantity of white matter,
i.e. nerve-fibre bundles covered with myelin that guarantee the connection
between the brain and the spinal cord – in the areas designated for
attention, control and executive functions. The result of this is a
physical change of the brain. In short, those who use social networks
consistently have different brains to those who do not.

Thus, social media and its effects are increasingly similar to the effects
of drugs. So, all interactions in communities can only be defined as need
for sharing, or does it go beyond that? It is the compulsive need to render
one’s social life public, a spectacle.

The impermanence of messages is also altering the memory, the capacity for
concentration and logical deduction. In short, social networks may not be
making us stupid, one might say, but closer. In reality we are facing
changes of historical proportions. The new generations are less able to
concentrate, to discern what is true from what is not, as in the case of
so-called ‘fake news’.

So what is the reason for this? For one, because our brain are getting so
much info that its slowing it down, and this also slows down the ability to
make immediate decisions.

This was also demonstrated by an experiment by Angelika Dimoka, director of
the Center for Neural Decision Making of The Temple University
. The researcher invited a group of volunteers to a sort of auction, taking
into consideration, before making the offer, a series of variables so as to
obtain the best combination at the lowest price.

The researcher has observed how the increase in the variables also
increased the error, and demonstrated through magnetic resonance, that the
informational load increased the activity of the prefrontal cortex lateral
backbone, responsible for decision-making processes and control of
emotions. After a certain threshold of information and parameters to be
considered was surpassed, the brain underwent a sort of cognitive blackout
that prevented the presentation of a new offer. Along with this, the
subjects showed signs of anxiety and mental fatigue.

In short, the digital age is not making us stupid but it is drastically
changing our feelings and behaviours.

We are almost part of a huge Skinner Box and the continuous flow of
information is generating tiredness and anxiety. These, combined with a
hectic and stressful life, is affecting the ability to make decisions. The
only real solution is to slow down, switch from “always on” to “sometimes
on”. Otherwise it will be affected by our whole life, relationships,
relationships. This is not alarmism but rather a call to reclaim their
lives and be really masters of their choices.


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Ever more digital, Ever more social. Revelations from the ‘We Are Social’ and Hootsuite reports

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