The dangers of social media addiction.
Swipe. A girl cuts open the packaging to her brand new phone. Click. She powers it on. Tap, tap. Logging on to the boundless expanse of the internet…
Meanwhile, her brain facilitates all her bodily functions and thought, serving as a never-resting machine. Chemical messengers, hormones and neurotransmitters, deliver messages from the brain to all throughout the body. Within the brain, a factory known as the “hypothalamus” exists, equipped with creaky pathways and dull sensors. It is the control center connecting reward pathways throughout the body. When activated, these pathways alert memory centers and take note of positive events that should be repeated. Presently, it lays still.
Her phone is new so she immediately navigates to the App Store. Predictably, the first few automated recommendations are top social media applications: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. As a young girl, she had never experienced the online world because her house only recently had Wifi installed, thanks to her father’s bonus.
“Should I download them?” she murmurs, scratching her head, “It seems pointless anyways.”
The reward system rumbles. It unconsciously yearns for the attention and love she never received. Her thumb, almost on its own accord, clicks the download button.
Immediately, she feels the urge to post an image that highlights her past achievements. As she frantically swipes through her photo library, she realizes that nothing lives up to the confident online persona she seeks to create. Just as she begins to despair, she spots an old picture at the beach and the perfect idea lights up inside her brain.
“Surfing the dream,” the caption reads. In reality, the girl has never surfed in her life. But her newly formed online persona has.
Ding! A push notification from Facebook lights up the dark room. Her first follow! The factory whirs to life. Gears whirl, steam spouts and the engine rumbles. It sends a message to other glands, instructing the production of a special golden liquid, dopamine. As both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, dopamine reinforces the brain to repeat pleasant activities, which causes a sense of happiness and euphoria. A drop of this luminescent golden liquid is created, oozing into the different pathways leading out of the factory. The brightness lights up the system, turning rust into glimmer.
Slowly, she begins to smile.
Outside her room, her parents’ voices fade and the lights click off. It is well past her bedtime, but her eyes continue being glued to the screen. Even if she tried, she would not be able to move them.
Ping! A notification sounds to corrupt this innocent explorer: a prompt to navigate to the Discover page. Curious, the girl clicks to a stranger’s post of a huge trophy, celebrating the win of a championship.
“Gratitude,” the modest caption reads.
Her smile fades.
An ominous black liquid, oxytocin, seeps out of glands under the direction of the factory. Like a coin with two opposite sides, this hormone is responsible for both love and envy. It infects the machine like poison, overwhelming the light.
All of the sudden, the girl begins to feel unexplained anger and aggression, coupled with misery and self depreciation. Swipe after swipe, she sees people with amazing achievements, each one more beautiful and popular than the one before. The black liquid gushes out in greater and greater quantities, reinforcing the powerful emotion of jealousy.
Time flies by and her eyes begin to sting. Sitting up, she notices for the first time the cramps in her back from spending eight hours in bed, mindlessly scrolling through her feed. Yawning, she rolls out of bed to start her day.
Her phone display reads: 100 followers.
A few days pass.
Since the initial post, the factory has changed- its circuits have warped to be unrecognizable. The brain has rewired itself to the positive reinforcement social media gives. Pathways strengthen in a process called long term potentiation, which increases the signal transmission between neurons to intensify the response to stimuli. The machine has become ultra-sensitive, reactive to even the slightest drop of dopamine.
With each new like and comment, a new burst of golden liquid motivates the factory to seek more rewards. With each new follow, the hypnotized machine forces her fingers to create new posts. When she hits 500 followers, she laughs hysterically out of pleasure, no longer thinking but acting purely to quench her thirst for validation.
Meanwhile, her online self, like an onion, continues to form new layers, developing into a new being entirely. Not only does it surf, it also has a boyfriend, loving parents and a huge wardrobe. It is the equivalent of a human being but with no physical form, existing only within the boundaries of the Internet. And with each new trait added, the factory churns out yet another spike of golden liquid.
A week passes. Nobody, not even her parents, can get her out of bed. All day, the girl lays in her bed. The dull white light of her screen enforces a superficial cycle designed to churn out “happiness”. Her phone stays attached to the charger, day in and day out, allowing never ending use. The machine slowly becomes flooded with artificial gold.
Ping! A different kind of notification pops up. The girl furrows her brow. It’s not from any of her social media apps. Apprehensively, she clicks it open.
“You have received 6 Fs this semester. Please set up a meeting with your school counselor immediately. Have a nice day!,” the email reads.
“What?” she gasps, dumbfounded. Her past self was a straight A student whose worth was directly associated with her transcript. “But…this can’t be possible!”
Tears form in her eyes, but she hastily wipes them away. For the first time in days, she reflects on reality, imagining the reactions of her parents and teachers. Creak. The factory’s gears whirl and several glands swiftly release a gush of a deep blue liquid, cortisol. As the stress hormone, it is the epitome of misery, spreading sadness throughout the blindingly bright machine.
Abruptly, she sits up and aggressively throws her phone to the ground without thinking. Thud! A resounding crack echos through the stuffy room.
Horrified, the girl rushes out of bed to retrieve her most prized possession. She falls to her knees as she runs her finger over the deep fissure through the screen. The factory creaks to a stop, halting the dopamine production. The light of the machine goes out. It is not pitch-black dark, but it is no longer artificially bright. It is….normal.
But the girl has been blinded by the golden light. She desperately pushes the power button, hoping for a miracle that can revive her phone.
Blue liquid comes booming out as broken, helpless sobs wrack through her body. She curls up in a fetal position on the ground. Black liquid is released as she thinks about the billions of people who, unlike her, have functional phones.
Overwhelmed, the imbalanced machine spirals out of control. Suppressed emotion of restlessness, agitation, anxiety and depression hit her in a massive wave.
As her sobs recede, she sees a mirage in her blurred sight. Just before she loses consciousness, she squints and her eyes make out a luminescent figure. Her online persona appears in front of her eyes, laughing and showing off shining trophies. A trace of a smile appears on her face and she feebly raises her shaking hand to touch the mirage. But despite how close her online self seems, the girl is unable to reach it. As she lowers her hand in defeat, a lone tear falls down her cheek and she realizes an important truth.
It has 5K followers. She has 0.