The limbic system is the center for pleasure and addiction in the rodent nervous system. In a controlled study on adolescent rats, scientists sought to determine whether or not the levels of dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, could be maintained in this region over prolonged social media use. With a series of topical content posts, evergreen posts, and meme dissemination, scientists were able to gauge whether or not the “thrill” derived from getting likes, favorites, or retweets was sustainable over a finite period of time.
Rat sourced content was tested across three core social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. All groups of rodents had to identify as millennials, which, adjusted to the lifespan of a rat, was estimated to be somewhere between the ages of 6-8 months. Additionally, all of the sample groups were controlled for rats who had begun (but not necessarily completed) liberal arts degrees in any of the major humanities. Finally, all the rats had to be pursuing some form of art: be that comedy, cinematography, or printmaking.
Across the board, dopamine levels in the rats’ brains seem to taper off as they consistently hit a certain number. For example: 100 likes on a given piece of content. Many of the more extroverted rats immediately reached this threshold after posting about “significant life changes” which generally include new jobs, wedding engagements or geographic moves. Once they hit this numerical marker, the rats require a higher and higher amount of validation from their peers to experience the same level of excitement.
It is worth noting that the same phenomenon was observed on varying scales. Rats that only ever received 20-30 likes after sharing a “well-rounded” think piece would enjoy an extremely high level of dopamine if they broke 50 likes on an unexpected political rant declaring that “Trump had finally gone too far.” But, when the same rat racked up similar numbers by acknowledging that his news feed was a “political echo chamber,” activity in this region of the brain slowed down once again.
In short, social media does not prove to be a sustainable source of cognitive reward. This is mainly because the brain adapts so quickly to the new expected outcome and the user ends up chasing the proverbial dragon. The only consistent way rats could continuously experience the “thrill” of #trending was if they exceeded their previous performance by a significant amount. This scenario, of course, would require engagement to increase exponentially to some infinite quantity. Like it seems to do for Lena Dunham. Most of the rats cited feelings of emptiness after the experiment and made half-hearted pledges to abstain from social media in the future. Further research may indeed be required in the wake of emerging platforms and current events.