Facebook, cocaine, opioids: How addictive is the social network?

(Credit: Associated Press)

The pitfalls of the social media and in combination, the largest players, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram, are well documented. Former Facebook employees have called the company for doing untold damage to the brain and maybe even the damage of how society works.”

Also, Facebook itself has acknowledged that the use of its services in a certain way can be harmful for the health in the long term.

But according to some medical experts consulted by Fox News, the excessive use of social media, and to an extent Facebook as the largest player, it can wind up with a similar short-term impact as the use of opiates and cocaine.


Opioids have a direct impact on the brain’s reward system, said Dr. Tara Emrani, psychologist at NYU Langone Health, the release of dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure seeking — which is similar to what happens when someone receives a Facebook “like” or comments.

“Facebook likes and comments activate similar parts of the brain such as opioids, where each a nice or positive response activates the reward system and the brain dopamine,” Dr. Emrani told Fox News by e-mail. She noted similar sensations that occur when someone eats food they enjoy, have sex, or use of other substances, such as cocaine.

“So, no doubt, the feelings/experiences of the brain as a result of Facebook likes or responses that are similar to those of cocaine, although less intensely,” Dr. Emrani added. “In addition, opioids have significant adverse effects on the brain, including shrinkage of the gray matter and loss of memory.”

Cocaine is not an opiate — it is, rather, “a powerfully addictive stimulant drug,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioids work directly with the nervous system to relieve the pain, while the impact on the brain’s reward system and release dopamine, “a chemical associated with pleasure seeking, increasing the risk for addiction and abuse,” Dr. Emrani said.

Facebook has not responded to requests for comment from Fox News.


The concern about the impact of social media

The link between the use of Facebook and getting a similar feeling to that of cocaine has already been made.

A 2014 study by the University of Southern California compared the effects of scrolling through a Facebook feed to that of the sensations experienced by the use of cocaine or gambling.

Keith Humphreys, a professor and the Section Director for Mental Health Policy in the Department of Psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, said: people are social animals, so there is no reason to believe that online social interaction would have a different reward path than what is to see in person.

“Drugs affect the same brain reward pathways that are fundamental to our functioning, i.e. the path that makes eating when we are hungry, getting warm when it is cold, makes me feel good,” Humphreys told Fox News by e-mail. “So the fact that something activates the same pathway as cocaine does not mean that it is addictive, but that it is worth the effort.”

The aforementioned dopamine effects are discussed by Dr. Emrani in the spotlight recently after Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive and the director of venture capital firm Social Capital, said in a November interview that social media is harmful for the society and concern had been expressed about the impact on his own children.

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created for the destruction of how society works,” Palihapitiya said in November, an interview at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth. And it is not an American problem. This is not about the Russian ads. This is a global problem. So we are in a very bad state of affairs now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave, by and between each other.”

Facebook then fired back at Palihapitiya, saying he was not employed by the company in six years and it was very different from the one he worked on.

Palihapitiya later backtracked his comments, saying that “Facebook is a force for good in the world”, while adding that his comments were intended to be used as a conversation starter on the use of social media in a responsible way.

No lasting long term effects?

While the short-term stimulating effects of obtaining ‘likes’ or comments are well documented, what is unclear at this point, the long-term effects of the use of social media.

Former Facebook President Sean Parker said in a November interview that he wasn’t sure what the app is doing to the development of the brain in children.

“I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I said, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people, and … it literally changes your relationship with the society, with each other … It probably interferes with the productivity in weird ways,” Parker was quoted as saying. “God only knows what it does to our children in the brain.”

Dr. Emrani said that there is “no conclusive evidence for a long-term reason for concern of the use of Facebook” according to the studies that have been done.

Humphreys echoed these statements, but he added that he is concerned about the attention span in children, the presumption of “the short as people are used to constant stimulation and change.”

Facebook’s influence and reaction

To its credit, Facebook recently released the results of a number of studies that demonstrate that use of the site in which it considers that a passive way (such as reading articles, but no interaction) are harmful to mental health. He also said that users who are more active on the platform (that talk to others and posting comments) and an improvement of their well-being.

Dr. Emrani said that during the use of the platform may cause people to be isolated or subjected to adverse views, it has become a “platform for people to seek support when they are confronted with misery, which then leads to a better self-esteem.”

Although comparisons are made between the use of social media and the effects of the use of opioids, others are not sure, there is enough of a connection between the two.

“[T]he harms [social media] are less apparent than with most addictions,” Dr. Mark D. Sullivan, psychiatry & behavioral sciences adjunct professor at the University of Washington, told Fox News via e-mail.

Dr. Sullivan did caution, however, that he is not a user of social media.

Another expert, an assistant neurobiologist professor at a university in New York, who declined to be named for this article, said: it was a bit of a stretch to compare social media and opioid drugs and specifically cocaine, with an indication of the fact that they “do not have the same strength and the same ability in disregulating the brain.” The professor added that opioids also have other effects on other parts of the brain that are not related to reward circuits.

However, the professor did acknowledge that a rewarding activity multiple times could lead to certain forms of abnormal plasticity, and in some subjects’ addictive and addictive behavior,” similar to that in gambling, sports, games and activities, stating the data of the New England Journal of Medicine and the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

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