Wednesday 24 April 2024

Self-Help For Cynics #30: Anti-Social Media

Back to our old friend Tiberius. 

Alabama 3 - Facebook.con

Tiberius isn't on Snappychat or Instagrass or any of the newer-fangled social networking sites. He checks in with the Book of Faces once or twice a day, mostly to keep up with old friends, drop the occasional witticism and play along with the daily quizzes one or two of his more eccentric peers post. And he quit Tweeter (which he'd rarely used anyway) when Elon Musk turned it into a dystopian autocracy named after an LA band featuring Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and D. J. Bonebrake. 

In terms of the pressures of social media then, Tiberius is living quite a mentally-healthy life. Unlike the average teenager...

A survey published earlier this year suggests that almost half of British teenagers are addicted to social media. Here's a selection of comments from the mouths of actual teenage young people in The Times of London last month...

“If I went an hour without my phone, I would be really stressed.”

“I was talking to people online when I was ten.”

“I would much rather have been born in the Eighties. I would have been working a lot harder.”

“You get a buzz if someone likes your comment. So a phone does give you quite a lot of validation, which is unhealthy in large doses – but it does feel good.”

That last one brings us back to Tiberius. Because, as previously mentioned, Tiberius does write a blog. Something which he claims he only does as a way of relaxing and focusing his mind on his two main interests - music and writing. Tiberius frequently states that he does this purely for himself, that it doesn't matter if other people read his witterings or leave an agreeable comment, and yet... and yet...

Remember our discussion about the benefits and pitfalls of writing?

Remember our brief look at that wonderful feel-good brain chemical dopamine?

According to Dr. Anna Lembke of Stanford University’s dual diagnosis addiction clinic, we are all dopamine addicts when it comes to social media (and that must include blogging). According to the Grauniad...

She calls the smartphone the “modern-day hypodermic needle”: we turn to it for quick hits, seeking attention, validation and distraction with each swipe, like and tweet.

(I couldn't resist slipping that one in. I know: I'm beyond hope.)

Social media, and the internet at large, is directly responsible for the rise in unhappiness in the developed world over the past 30 years. Could the microcosm of the blogosphere be just as responsible for this as TikTok, Tinder and Pornhub? Surely it's not as bad as those appalling supervillains? Well, if it's encouraging our dopamine addiction... maybe.

Dopamine causes addiction because of how the brain works in response to it. After any pleasurable experience (which causes a dopamine release), the brain responds with a process called homeostasis. Which basically uses the lyrics of Pete Seeger's Turn! Turn! Turn! (or the Book of Ecclesiastes, if you want to get Biblical) as a template for self-regulation.

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

Or you might say it's following Newton's Third Law, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

In other words, for every up... there must follow a down. Or a downer, to be more precise.

When we binge on pleasurable things, homeostasis means “our brain compensates by bringing us lower and lower and lower,” says Lembke. Each time the thing becomes less enjoyable, but we eventually become dependent on those stimuli to keep functioning. We spiral into a joy-seeking abyss. 

And when it comes to the internet, there's nothing to stop us feeding our addiction. If we're hooked on booze or drugs, eventually we'll run out of the substance in question, or run out of the funds needed to procure them. If you're addicted to social media because of the tiny dopamine spikes that come from a like or a thumbs up or a smiley... or a blogging comment... then short of them turning off your electric (and the batteries on all your mobile devices dying simultaneously), there's nothing to stop you gorging yourself to the point of gluttony. 

Which makes Tiberius question... how much blogging is too much blogging? Is up to (and sometimes over) a thousand words a day just too much? In devoting so much time to the dopamine-inducing thrill of blogging, is he denying himself the comedown? What is that doing to his brain?

More on this next time...


  1. Is is bad that, however much I agree with all of this (and I really do), the question I am burning with now is this: is Tiberius named after Jim Kirk's middle name?

    Hope this comment doesn't cause too much of a dopamine spike.

    1. Has William Shatner ever felt one second of self-doubt in his entire life?

    2. Not even when donning his permed wig for TJ Hooker. What a man!

  2. Please have a little hit of dopamine on me! Another brilliant post in a brilliant series. I do fear for the young and the normalisation of this addiction, though; at least we older ones had our analogue youth experiences regardless. Having said that, I'm returning to that state now, spending less and less time online as I find it increasingly taxing looking at a screen - no good for my noisy head!

    1. If being away from the screen helps, C, then more power to you. We miss you when you're not around, but a less noisy head is always something to celebrate.

  3. There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't have been able to keep going with my blog if I hadn't received a reasonable amount of comments when I put up something new. Having said that I'm not blogging nearly as much as I used to so maybe not addicted after all.

    I love reading your posts and this series has been really informative but I do wonder if you substituted a couple of days of blogging for a couple of sessions of reading (I know you don't have time for this really enjoyable pastime any more) you would replace the dopamine hit with contentment and achievement. Only one way to find out I suppose.

    1. Funny you should say that, Alyson, because I've increased my reading rate by quite a bit this year. Since Christmas, I've managed more than a book a month (quite lengthy books too, like Michel Faber's Listen and David Mitchell's Utopia Avenue, which I'm currently halfway through), whereas last year it was taking me two months plus to get through even a shorter text. Not quite sure where I'm finding extra time, but it's definitely beneficial...

    2. Glad to hear that. Now that we have a dedicated Reading Hour in our house I’m powering through the books at nearly one a week. Will maybe share some of my favourites at some point. Demon Copperhead is my current read - a longer one and just started it but something quite special.

  4. You should have a regular column under the 'Opinion' section of at least one of our allegedly quality broadsheets; but then again, I reckon the readership of most of them would lead the charge to have you fired as you talk far too much sense! Another brilliant read.

    1. Common sense will be all our downfalls, JC.


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