Think ABout It: Addiction or staying connected?

Am I just old and out of the loop or is there really something unsocial about social media? I may be the only old, loopless one but there are a lot of people asking the same questions. Articles about the perils of addiction to our devices — cell, smart, tablet and desktop — are appearing more often.

Obviously, we are not attracted to the device; we get no particular rush from looking at or touching our cellphone unless we think it is going to bring us something we want. The device is a system of delivery of something we want or think we should have or know. Then, we go on the device often looking for it, the connection to something.

I suppose the device is like needing a syringe to deliver a drug fix. Does that mean we can say we are addicted to what the device delivers? Maybe, at least, that’s what researchers are trying to define.

I belong to a serious study group that decided to tackle the subject of social media addiction. We have given our group a clever name for our pursuits, which I won’t reveal because I think one of our members may be in the Witness Protection Program.

Anyway, that’s another story for another column. We formed our group so we could focus and drill down on one topic that is influencing our culture at each meeting. “Social Media Addiction” is perfect. It’s timely, relevant and, importantly, something we didn’t fully understand.

We soon discovered that we weren’t the only ones. Experts in the fields know something different is going on but disagree among themselves about what it is. Is it insatiable curiosity, habit, compulsion, addiction, or some sort of weird Pavlovian response to a noise that tells us to answer the chime.

Those who examine brain activity through imaging tell us that the same area of the brain releases the reward or the “I feel great” chemical in response to social media connections as it does to cocaine.

The chemical is called dopamine, an unfortunate name for a chemical important to our well-being. Too little and we miss the joie de vivre in our lives. Too much, well, I don’t know if we can have too much unless we are living with the serious condition of manic-depressive disorder.

Ordinarily, we enjoy the feeling produced by dopamine and the often-accompanying oxytocin, a brain chemical thought to be responsible for feelings of love.

We want it.

Wanting too much

However, wanting it too much can lead us into chemical addiction such as drugs and alcohol, that ultimately results in physical dependence, growing tolerance, physical withdrawal symptoms, and growing focus on accessing the chemical.

Right now, in our community, we are facing an epidemic of opioid addiction in young people, which seems highly resistant to long-term treatment.

As much as we might sense a danger in too much social media and too little human interaction, it’s hard to see it fitting into the same problem as opioid addiction. Although, we might compare brain changes that can more easily occur in an adolescent’s developing brain if brain focus is limited to few areas.

Since I grew up in the Dark Ages, I can’t possibly relate to the attachment to social media held by a generation that was born into it. I can say I see as much benefit as risk to the generation.

Our youth mobilized a massive effort to bring attention to the need to control gun violence which I have no doubt was done through social media. It sure wasn’t a telephone tree.

The instant access to knowledge is incredibly important; no more going to the library, finding the right page in the right volume of the right series of journals. Think what it’s brought to people that are housebound or economically disadvantaged.

The danger we sense lays in the transformation of social discourse from voice to voice, touch to touch, to poking or pounding on a device. Researchers are trying to figure it out.

One of the paths of research is the impact of social media on the brain development of an adolescent. For example, and mentioned earlier is the understanding that the more you exercise one part of your brain, the more developed it will be.

One researcher reported that engaging in excessive “passive social networking” can result in loss of creativity because the part of the brain used for creativity isn’t used.

A couple of columns ago, I wrote about how the development of the brain continues until sometime in our late twenties. Great strides are made in problem-solving and judgment during adolescences, but it’s not complete and somewhat unpredictable.

Related to social media, teens have a stronger reward or dopamine rush to signs of social connection (example: likes) through social media than brain-mature adults. The drama of acceptance and rejection is constant on social media and keenly felt by a teen.

Who counsels the teen who experiences unmanageable drama from social media? Or, what if no one is there? Or, only peers experiencing the same drama?

Then again, if what we are hearing from the youths speaking out, demanding gun violence control is an example, we have nothing to fear. There may be a few shy stumbles, but for the most part, they are articulate, informed beings.

At least, we have begun our journey into the impact of social media on our youth who were born into it and do not have enough generations ahead of them that know what’s up with them and social media.

Old and out of the loop, I still feel a lot of excitement about the possibilities for our youth if we encourage their and allow our creative brains to develop.

My serious study group feels the same as far as I could tell. It didn’t help that we were distracted during our meeting when one of our members disappeared, leaving her cellphone and tablet behind.

But, that’s another column.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years.

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