I still remember when I first signed up for Facebook. I was 11 and had to lie about my age. When I logged onto the platform, my young mind was astounded to find out how popular I was.
Throughout the following week, I received and sent hundreds of friend requests to kids my age. All day, notification icons popped up on my iPod touch telling me I had new friends.
This was my introduction to what behavioral psychologists call a mass neurochemical release. It’s when your brain releases pleasure-causing chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin into your bloodstream. My 11-year-old self didn’t know it, but I had been introduced to a digital drug. It has taken my generation, “Generation Z,” by storm.
For hundreds of thousands of years, the human race was a nomadic species. People gathered in communities and our evolutionary timeline suited us to this lifestyle. If an individual did not fit into a nomadic community, they were left to fend for themselves, which often meant death. So our brains developed mechanisms to drive individuals to fit in.
Feeling lonely is our brain’s way of telling us that we need a community. The problem is, evolution takes millions of years to adapt to its environment. We humans of today are stuck with a body and brain that is adapted to the environment of our ancestors. We still long for meaningful connections to others and to be a part of the community that our ancestors needed to survive.
So shouldn’t this newfound way to connect to thousands of people in your community and around the world be an amazing creation that substitutes for this traditionally ancestral feeling of belonging? Not exactly. In the U.S., 46 percent of the population report feeling lonely regularly. We live in the most connected era in human history, and still an unprecedented proportion of us feel alone.
Platforms that were once heralded as amazing new ways to connect are doing the opposite. Applications like Twitter and Facebook are designed to give users a sense of belonging. But instead of enabling us to join a community built upon human interaction and support, they only give us an initial feeling of pleasure. Many acknowledge that this rudimentary connection is surface level at best. My generation and our society have failed to fully recognize how destructive social media is.
Teens spend nearly nine hours every day consuming media online. In adolescents, anxiety and depression rates are at an all-time high and many believe this is directly associated with social media use. Let’s stop pretending that these platforms provide overall societal good. They are tearing the fabric that allows humans to find meaning.
Take a look at your life: Where have you discovered happiness? I am hard pressed to find a moment I cherish that involved scrolling mindlessly through the artificial life my friends and I have created to show off and feed the neurochemical transmitters that desire attention.
I deleted my Facebook and Twitter. I recognize that these platforms provide value for some through entertainment and the organization of events or causes. But my generation needs to ask whether these platforms really make us happy overall.
Or are they just contributing to an environment that is pushing us away from a genuine connection with a community?
Ian Smith is a student senator at the University of Minnesota studying finance and philosophy.