My only actual new year’s resolution for 2022 is to finish a Sunday crossword. But there are plenty of positive 2021 experiences I want to lean into more in the new year: petting my cat, eating takeout, going for runs, rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are also plenty of 2021 feelings I want to avoid, the ones that give me a pang of anxiety or a rush of dopamine — like when I tweet a story I’ve put work into, or how my brain feels when an Instagram photo does well.
Being a culture reporter requires me to be on social media apps. But I’m learning that the less I post on my online feeds, the better time I have offline; my expectations for where I might get attention have shifted. I selected Instagram’s new-for-2021 option to hide like counts — both on my own posts, and all the posts I see in my feed. And yet, as Instagram’s own study found, removing likes doesn’t reduce our misery-making need to feel popular. Other elements of quantified popularity, such as comments and follower counts, are baked into the app (and the company is currently testing one more: private likes on stories).
The likes aren’t necessarily the point. When we post publicly, we’re often aware of the chance that our post might go viral, whatever that means to each of us. For one user, it might be getting a dozen comments on a photo; for another, a screenshot of their tweet shared on Facebook. But we know it when we feel it. Social media has created a space in which the number of eyeballs on any piece of content can escalate quickly, finding its way to a meme account, a popular subreddit, a trending hashtag.
The question is, what does that awareness of potential fleeting fame do to our brains? Science is just starting to investigate the problem, but plenty of people don’t trust social media companies to have their best intentions in mind when they create systems that make us rely on their apps in such a primal way. Trust in social media companies seems to be at an all-time low. If there were ever a year for us all to stop playing the “maybe I’ll go viral” game, 2022 is it.
Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford professor of clinical psychiatry and the author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the e-Personality, says the neurochemical effect of having your own content go viral online hasn’t been adequately studied, so we don’t fully understand what virality does to our brains.
“What we do know, however, is that likes are experienced as a proxy for popularity and relevance,” Aboujaoude says. “Achieving virality is social media’s highest proof of popularity and relevance.”
We also know that there’s a shift in our dopamine levels when we get any interaction with a post. Dr. Courtney Tracy, an addiction specialist also known as The Truth Doctor on TikTok and Instagram, says that when we receive any kind of recognition on a social media post, it activates a dopamine pathway in our brains.
Going viral is ‘like an all-night concert with an open bar and great drinks’
“You feel satisfied, accomplished, good,” Tracy says. “Dopamine is one of the feel-good chemicals that motivates us to keep doing the thing that brought us the dopamine, to begin with. What was once evolutionarily designed to help us eat food [and] get good sleep, has been hijacked in the social media space to keep us on the platforms as long as possible.”
Likes and shares give us an emotional high, and at the root of the high is a feeling of social approval. When it arrives in droves, it’s like a force multiplier for dopamine. “Going viral means validation, usually, and validation for who we are and what we do is a natural human need,” Tracy says. “Because virality usually lasts for longer than the basic length of a normal ‘like’ experience on any given day, it’s sort of like a long party in your mind.
“Instead of one good song and a drink, for example, it’s like an all-night concert with an open bar and great drinks that we can’t get enough of.”
The desire for that ego boost can change your behavior, making you want to post what your audience is most likely to like or share — with potentially catastrophic results. “The result is to want to achieve the highest number of likes possible, which sometimes translates into ever more extreme posts or posts that play fast and loose with the truth,” Aboujaoude said. “This has played a role in the radicalizing of the internet and society, as well as the emergence of post-truth culture.”
Of course, not all of us are posting politically outrageous content to get viral levels of attention. But even if you’re just making an amusing TikTok, your level of expectations for its reception make a difference. “Intent absolutely matters,” Tracy says. “Think about how you feel when you have the time of your life at a surprise party that you didn’t have to plan at all, versus a birthday party you planned for weeks and are now just grateful it’s over and it went well. The surprise element matters … we move from baseline to skyrocketing validation, versus down low from being stressed and the party just getting you back to baseline.”
If we are intending to viral and don’t, we feel let down. Aim that high enough times, and you’re changing your brain no matter the outcome. Tracy compared influencers who experience virality often to an addict who has a high tolerance for a drug. And would-be influencers are chasing an unhealthy high too. “Wanting to go viral and getting let down often encourages a maladaptive relationship with social media,” she says. “When we’re attempting to go viral, it’s usually because we’re motivated by the memory of our past validation.
“We gain dopamine just thinking about how we may get more [validation]. This is general excitement and motivation in the brain. However, when we don’t go viral, that dopamine disappears.”
Griffin Haddrill, the CEO and co-founder of VRTCL, a TikTok viral marketing agency, agrees that people who go viral online often just don’t get the same kind of excitement from a well-performing post. “It’s their expectation now is that everything that they post is going to go viral,” Haddril says. “And so when they don’t go viral, there’s typically a feeling of disappointment. When they do, it’s almost a feeling of normalcy.”
Though the science of social media is in its infancy, the companies in question know our relationship to their products is is far from a healthy one. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s leaks, known as the Facebook Papers, showed that “Instagram is harmful to a sizable percentage of [teens], most notably teenage girls.” The CDC noted the rate of suicide among people aged 10 to 24 increased by 56 percent from 2007 to 2017, making suicide the second leading cause of death for young people, following accidents. Some experts attribute part of the rise to social media. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly twice as many teens said they used the internet “almost constantly” in 2018 than in 2014.
That’s not to say mild amounts of social media use are harmful. A 2020 study out of the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows that using social media every day as part of a routine, and responding to others’ content, is positively associated with social well-being and mental health. But checking apps “excessively out of fear of missing out, being disappointed about or feeling disconnected from friends when not logged into social media” — as you might act if you’re waiting to go viral — has the opposite effect.
So given all this evidence, do we really want to waste another year trying to create viral content? As Aboujaoude calls it, the very attempt is “an increasingly desperate quest given the endless other online distractions and content one could be viewing.” Thankfully there are some other things you can do to mitigate the effects that social media — and potential virality — has on your brain. By being mindful of our thoughts when we’re on the apps, we can label the ones that count as cognitive distortions.
And that’s what I’ll be doing in 2022. Well, that and the Sunday crossword.