Do Social Networks Sell Drugs?

As published in The Non-Significant Journal of Business & Consumer Psychology Issue 2.1 - Spring 2013

Background

In recent years, an increasing number of scholars have sought to study and measure the impact of social networks (social media).

Social media network connection concept
Social media network connection concept
  • A 2010 study by the University of Maryland suggested that social networks may be addictive, and that using social networks may lead to a "fear of missing out", also known by the acronym "FOMO" by many students.
  • It has been observed that Facebook is now the primary method for communication by college students in the U.S.
  • According to Nielsen, global consumers spend more than six hours on social networking sites.
  • Consumers continue to spend more time on social networks than on any other category of sites—roughly 20% of their total time online via personal computer (PC), and 30% of total time online via mobile.
  • Tim Berners-Lee contends that the danger of social networking sites is that most are silos and do not allow users to port data from one site to another. He also cautions against social networks that grow too big and become a monopoly as this tends to limit innovation.
  • According to several clinics in the UK, social media addiction is a certifiable medical condition. One psychiatric consultant claims he treats as many as one hundred cases a year.

Introduction

Networks are not new; they have existed since the very first existence of cells on planet earth. It's quite amazing to know that our cells work together in networks to achieve tasks together. One such example is wound healing. For wound healing to occur, white blood cells and cells that ingest bacteria move to the wound site to kill the microorganisms that cause infection. At the same time fibroblasts (connective tissue cells) move there to remodel damaged structures. This is a wonderful example of how cells behave together in networks.

Even our brain neurons wire together in associative networks to create our memories and skills. Cell division even mirrors the way that networks grow.

We humans are no exception in nature. We exist and flourish as part of networks. We seem to have some inborn instinct to behave in this way, actively involving ourselves in many different systems of connections.

Thumbs up like button on white background.
Thumbs up like button on white background.

The first network we experience in our lives is the immediate family, where we learn how to be social by watching our parents and siblings. Beyond that, we soon learn how to ‘network’ with other groups of adults and children. We then start our social journey by joining many different networks, the nursery, primary and secondary school, the college and university and then our work and leisure networks.

The size, membership and complexity of these networks may grow or contract during our lifetime, but they always remain an important part of our experience. There are several theories put forward to explain this networking phenomenon, from Social Comparison Theory,Role Theory,Homogeneous Theory and the Social Identity approach. The evidence seems to point to the conclusion that networking is in part driven by our genetic make-up.

Tribes

These networks have a major impact on our lives. They determine how we see the world and how we see ourselves; we constantly monitor how we are accepted in our various networks.

Perhaps another word for these networks could be 'tribes'.

Belonging to a 'tribe', gives us the feeling that we are part of ‘something bigger’ then we are. It helps to give our lives more meaning and significance. The belief that you belong to a ’tribe’ is reinforcing, as it encourages you to relate more strongly with the other individuals in that ’tribe’. It helps with the identity that you have given yourself as you became an adult.

When your ’tribe’ behaves in the same way that you do, you will consider them the same as ’you’ and somehow feel a connection. It triggers an automatic approval, telling yourself that they are OK as they behave in a similar way to you.

The way that this translates in social networks is that individuals will follow people on twitter, send each other friends’ requests on Facebook or ask to be connected inside professional networks, like LinkedIn. We may have never met the person but for some reason we want to share intimate details of our lives with them.

Facebook
Facebook

Never in the world have we seen this kind of behaviour before. It did not exist before social networks appeared on the worldwide web. You could not have imagined walking up to strangers, people you have never met and suddenly start sharing your personal life with them. It just didn’t happen. We as humans need to trust someone first before we will share personal details. In social networks personal details are being shared all the time without any apparent shyness or reservation.

And the only reason this happens is because we have connected at some level with this stranger in a social network where their behaviour mirrors our own. In social networks we behave for around 80% of the time exactly the same way as everybody else. Just the act of being in a social network together, posting updates, sharing content means you are doing the same as everyone else and that makes you part of that tribe.

Significance

Social networks give us a platform for significance. According to Anthony Robbins, significance is one of the 6 human needs as per his Human Needs Psychology model.  We all have a need to be significant in our lives and when family and friends, like, comment or respond to our activity inside social networks, we feel good, we feel loved, we feel significant.

Dopamine is closely associated with reward-seeking behaviours, such as approach, consumption, and addiction. Recent research suggests that the firing of dopaminergic neurons is motivational as a consequence of reward-anticipation. This hypothesis is based on the evidence that, when a reward is greater than expected, the firing of certain dopaminergic neurons increases, which consequently increases desire or motivation towards the reward. This is why social networks are so addictive and why games inside social networks (e.g. Farmville) are so popular. Equally though, aggression is also evident in social networks and recent studies indicate that aggression may also stimulate the release of dopamine.

Why do humans enjoy social networks?

Humans are social beings, they thrive around other humans and other humans make them thrive. Without human interaction we have no reason to exist. Compassion and love is a ready built-in operating system, which we are born with. Without the love we experience on the day of our birth we would probably die. Throughout our lives we crave that love and connection with other humans. Especially as those humans are the same as us or expressed in another way, exist in the same tribe as us.

Anthony Robbins’ Human Need Psychology says that one of our 6 human needs is love and connection15 .

Physical social networks, whether it’s the family unit, our workplace unit or other tribal social networks, which we belong to for our sport, hobbies and political activities, all exist because there is some love and connection that takes place.

Virtual social networks via the web also exist for the same reason. The creators of these networks have been able to create certain activities to allow us to feel love and connection with a connection or a tribe that exists inside these networks. Whether it is ’liking’, ’commenting’, ’sharing’, ’re-tweeting’, ’favouriting’, ’re-posting’, the user feels good when this takes place or in other words they do feel loved. This is very addictive and when dopamine is released in the brain, we want to experience more of this feeling16 .

As human beings we also want to give out love and this is another one of the human needs and is called ’contribution’. And therefore in social networks we also like to contribute to our fellow human beings.

The way that this translates inside of virtual social networks is no different. For example by actively ’liking’, ’sharing’, ’commenting’, it makes us feel good and drives us to do more of it, whenever the recipient rewards us in some way for taking this selfless action. And guess what happens more dopamine is released and the more addictive it becomes.

Put on top of that Ivan Pavlov’s dog experiment

and ’ding, ding, woof, woof’, every time our mobile device makes that familiar notification noise, we know that this could mean more dopamine and more love, so we’ll react instantly to the need of that possibility.

How social learning grows networks

In 1961 Albert Bandura conducted a controversial experiment known as the ‘Bobo-Doll ‘experiment, to study patterns of behaviour associated with aggression. Bandura hoped that the experiment would prove that aggression can be explained, at least in part, by social learning theory, and that similar behaviours were learned by individuals modelling their own behaviour after the actions of others. The experiment was criticised by some on ethical grounds, for training children towards aggression.

Bandura’s results from the Bobo Doll Experiment changed the course of modern psychology, and were widely credited for helping shift the focus in academic psychology from pure behaviourism to cognitive psychology. The experiment is among the most lauded and celebrated of psychological experiments.

Penguin points
Penguin points

This study can be viewed as quite significant and why social networks grow so fast. When we see the activities of others in social networks, we start to wonder if we're missing out on something and whether we need to start involving ourselves. When we then discover that our tribe, (whether family, work, hobby or other tribe), is doing the same, we will stay and investigate it further. And that is when we start enjoying shots of dopamine in our brain and when the addiction of this social network interaction starts working.

CAUTION: NOT SUITABLE FOR MINORS

Conclusion

Social networks are here to stay, they've always existed and whether they are physical or virtual they are an important piece of our human make-up. My personal view too is that back in the times when humans went through war and terror they would draw closer to each other and grow closer socially. For example, during World War II, it was easier to connect with our fellow humans as we were all going through the same terror and strife. We would look out for one and other and support each other.

Basically we were giving each other a lot of love.

Bird Doodles
Bird Doodles

As the human population has grown and spread across the globe, some of the physical connections may have been lost. Virtual social networks have allowed us to make that re-connection with each other and in fact get in touch with people who we may not have seen for many years.

Of course this makes us feel loved and appreciated too.

And now, because these virtual networks show us how many fans, followers, and friends we have, this is proof to the world and ourselves how popular we are.  We take this metric as an important measure of how many people approve of us or rather love us, a kind of ‘love-o-meter’!

...or in Bryan Ferry’s - Roxy Music words...”Love is the drug I’m thinking of...”