Science | Are we wired to be internet addicts?

Like a heroin addiction, the internet is offering new hits. There is increasing prevalence of individuals becoming ‘web-surfing’ addicts, in a condition concretely termed ‘internet addiction disorder’. Researchers have pinpointed the symptomatic formation of excess white matter in the brains of sufferers. As a result, real life is devalued and actual experiences are obscured, with the certainty of clicks.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated the negative experiences individuals encounter through social media, evoking enhanced feelings of loneliness, frustration and envy. In youths, and mature delinquents, social media masks are exacerbating violence, cyberbullying and harassment, among other problems. Yet, why are we, as humans, so responsive to the social world?

In evolutionary terms, there have been adaptations in the human lineage that have provided the groundwork for our modern social media addiction. We all have the desire to connect. Prior to the development of the neocortex and before mammals branched out from other vertebrates, all species already knew the capacity to connect.

This sense for connectivity is ingrained in the essence of our evolution. Connectivity is the stem to our ability to experience social pains and pleasures, linking our wellbeing to our social connectedness. Even more than that, we have another adaptation, to superficially ‘mind-read’, or rather, to anticipate the emotions of others with intuitive foresight. What this denotes is the strategic societal navigation that distinguishes primates from other species. With empathy and the ability to understand the thoughts and actions of others, elaborate thinking allows the creation of groups which concentrate on anticipating the needs and wants of its members, paving the way for species’ progression. Moreover, humans have evolved a willingness to placate and please. During adolescence, neural adaptations allow external group beliefs and values to influence our own. Even though popular interpretations present peer pressure in shades of the criticism that amounts from its potential for harmful influence, it is, regardless, an ingrained adaptation that evolved on purpose. As a species, our ability to ‘harmonise,’ working with our astute sense of ‘self’ as a species, means that we have the ability to operate to strongly reinforce social cohesiveness.

Evolved to connect, humans are, through social media, recreating the connectivity that shapes them. Namely, as neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman has explained, just as the internet hosts multiple social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, our brains are host to numerous regions that play the part of social networks, working to promote our social well being. Across our evolutionary history, as we passed from vertebrates, to mammals, primates and modern day humans,  these networks emerged at distinct points. Each network carries its own attributes and, of the greatest intrigue, is that each is chronologically recaptured during our personal growth  as we progress through our own childhood.

Social networks have evolutionary ancestry. Social media is its by product; in the modern age, it is simply supplying the space to discern our own habitual actions, attitudes and societal systems. The inflated scale for supposed connection presents the same yearnings of our species, which, when left unsatisfied, cries the same.


Sofia Popov

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