There’s no question that social media has changed modern society for better or worse. Some say that social media makes us more connected, but is this really true? In this episode, Dr. Daniel Amen is joined by addiction specialist Dr. Jennifer Farrell for a discussion on the physical effects social media has on the brain.
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Dr Daniel Amen: Welcome back. I am here with Dr. Jennifer Farrell who's board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, a diplomat of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. She attended Loma Linda University School of Medicine, which is where Tana went, and got her nursing degree. She's an award-winning researcher, international speaker, interested in the interface between cultural and spiritual factors, and overall mental health.
And today we're going to talk about something that is just so horrifying to me.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: It's every favorite topic. It's everyone's new favorite.
Dr Daniel Amen: It's the addiction of the decade, if you will, which is Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter, and-
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Twitter, and social media.
Dr Daniel Amen: It's social media that has really stolen our minds.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dr Daniel Amen: According to a study from Microsoft, this is 2015, the human attention span is now eight seconds. A goldfish is nine seconds, so, I'd say this is evolution going the wrong way.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Well, I have a feeling it's not going to be too much more time before we actually have to reassess how we diagnose attention issues, because there is such a huge difference between these fast-paced video games and this online scrolling through, and news and everything on an instant, and going and sitting in a classroom.
People get bored, they can't pay attention, and is it actually, you know, the classic ADD? Or are people now so used to having so much information at such a fast pace that they can no longer pay attention?
Dr Daniel Amen: And the world has changed, certainly since I grew up, since you grew up. You know, when we were kids, there was not the constant bombardment. I remember when video games came into my house. My son was 11, and he'd gotten straight As in sixth grade, and began to fall apart in seventh grade. And we started fighting ... I think it was an Atari video game. We started fighting about it, and so I just took it out of the house. I could just see the writing on the wall, "This is a bad thing."
And he's like, "Where'd it go?" I said, "Oh, it's not working anymore." He said, "Well, aren't you going to get it fixed?" I'm like, "No. It's not good for you. Let's go play basketball."
Dr Daniel Amen: So, let's talk about the biology of this. 'Cause I've been thinking a lot about it, that deep in your brain, you have structures that produce a neurotransmitter called dopamine. So, it's in this area by your brain stem called the ventral tegmental area. It goes and pushes on the pleasure centers of the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, part of the basal ganglia.
And so, dopamine is produced, it pushes on the pleasure center, and if it's released too much, too often, the pleasure centers actually begin to wear out. And so, people who are obese, they actually have lower activity in their nucleus accumbens, because all of the low-quality, but tasty, food has worn out their pleasure centers, and so they have to do more and more to get the same result.
It certainly happens with cocaine, it happens with methamphetamines. And they've actually found it happens with social media, when you're waiting for the next post, for the next fan, for the next email, the next text. It's like you get this dopamine drip, drip, drip, dump, drip, drip, drip, dump. And you begin to chase it. Does that make sense from an addiction standpoint?
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Well, absolutely. And when we look at different types of reward, the patterns of reward behaviors have been studied. And there's consistent reward, where every time you push a button, you get a pellet of food. And then there's inconsistent reward. And this is why gambling is such an issue, because when you push a button and get a reward every time, people push the button and get the award.
When you push a button and don't get anything, push button don't get anything, push a button and then randomly get a lot of stuff, then you want to keep pushing that button. And people actually will push it more and more and more, when they don't have consistent output, or input.
And so, that's really how social media works. When you're on Facebook: "Well, is someone going to like something, and was I clever? Did they think I was funny? Did they like my picture?" You know. And you never ... A lot of times, people are going on there to see their feedback. "Are people retweeting what I said? Was I clever?" And so they're looking to get that, but it's not every time they log on. So they want to log on again, and again, and again, looking for that feedback.
Dr Daniel Amen: So it's creating an addiction. Do you think these companies actually hire neuroscientists to figure out how the brain works?
Dr Jennifer Farrell: You know, it's interesting. I wouldn't be surprised to know. I don't know the inner workings of them. Knowing what we know about the food industry, and how often they brought in experts, and they started putting sugar in everything, like every processed food product in a can, in a jar, you know, it's hard to find one without sugar. And they did that because they knew how addicting sugar can be. And so, the food industry learned it long ago, and I'm not surprised at all if the gaming industry, the social media industry, does exactly the same thing.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, I actually asked you knowing the answer to the question.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Did I get it right?
Dr Daniel Amen: They absolutely hire neuroscientists. There's a book on this, it's called Hooked, and it's how to develop addictive products. And now, I heard recently, Facebook's going after children, they developed an app for children.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Oh, I did hear that.
Dr Daniel Amen: And I was just horrified, because it reminds me of McDonald's, and Ronald McDonald. What is Ronald McDonald about?
Dr Jennifer Farrell: The Happy Meals, and the toys, and, yeah.
Dr Daniel Amen: Going after your children. And we need, the Brain Warrior's Way, needs to go after them but in a healthy way: "Is this good for my brain, or bad for it?"
So, I recently had a 13-year-old patient who took pictures of her body that she probably shouldn't have, and shared it privately, and that person she trusted shared it publicly. And my patient became suicidal, wanted to run away. I mean, it was just a nightmare.
And I was actually in Washington, D.C. at the time, and Chloe, our 14-year-old, was with me. And I went, "Chloe, how often does this happen?" And I'm like thinking, 5% of the time. She goes, "30% of the kids do that." And I was just horrified.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Yeah. I say to my friends all the time, "Thank god we didn't have Facebook when we were younger." Because we had a break, you know. We all went to school with the mean girls, or all this stuff could happen between 8:00 AM and 3:30 PM, and then you went home, and played with the kids on your street, and did your homework and everything.
And the teasing would stop, you could have a break from that. And there wasn't this kind of idea of long-lasting ramifications. There could be gossip, but there certainly weren't photos. And so, we talk all the time about how grateful we are that we didn't have that.
I can't imagine the pressures that kids have, growing up right now, with all the Instagram. Not only of what to post, who's looking at it, but in a sense it tells them how to look. And so, they're really caught up in body image and the feedback that they're getting. And so, I mean, it's really something that this generation is looking at that I think older generations didn't have to deal with at the same rate, and constant input with that.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, thinking about it from an addiction-ologist perspective, what is the best way for parents to deal with gadgets for their kids? And we didn't talk about it yet, but pornography is also a huge issue. I mean, it's just horrifying to me.
I have another 14-year-old patient, and he's in his room for hours at a time, talking to his friends about the porn they're watching on their phones, which is shrinking his brain, right? I mean, dumping dopamine repeatedly, so it's going to take more and more. So you imagine, it's going to really damage his intimate relationships.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Mm-hmm (affirmative), absolutely.
Dr Daniel Amen: And the parents are sort of beside themselves on what to do.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Yeah. Well, I mean, two words, right: parental locks. I mean, you can call the phone company, you can call your cable company, you can block these sites. And it's something that even parents who aren't talking to their kids about it yet, your kid's getting 12, 13, 14, it's a good idea just to go ahead and do it. Because kids, even before they have sex education in school or around that time, they're not going to come to you as the parent and be like, "Oh, I have these questions." They're going to go-
Dr Daniel Amen: Right. How many of us would have gone to our mom and dad, and say, "Hey, this is happening, what do you think?"
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Never, never. Never. And so, to have those in place-
Dr Daniel Amen: My mom has seven children. Whenever I'd bring it up, she'd turn green, and I would like, "I know you know about it."
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Yeah. So, limiting access is key. Having the conversations with kids about sexuality, and healthy sexuality, and how damaging pornography can be. So, pornography isn't really learning about sex ed, there's a big difference there.
So a lot of times, people just say, "Well, I don't want my kids learning about sex, they're too young." Well, they're learning about it, so you want to teach them healthy sex ed. So yeah, the pornography is a huge issue, with phones and iPads and the computers, it's everywhere.
Dr Daniel Amen: Okay. So, parental supervision is so important. I often say, "You have to be your child's frontal lobes, until theirs develop."
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Exactly. And the same holds true-
Dr Daniel Amen: And they don't develop fully until they're 25, right?
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Right.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, supervision, which is why I'm also sort of not a fan of sending 18-year-olds away, a long ways away, to school, because as you and I both see, that's often when the first major psychiatric crisis happens. It's the first suicide attempt, the first psychotic break, the first manic episode, is when they're away and not being supervised. And often they've unleashed a torrent of bad behaviors, you know, from food, not sleeping, crazy relationships, and so on.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Exactly. Well, these parental controls can also be so helpful on the social media sites, on the Facebook monitoring, not letting your kids who are too young be on Facebook. Even talking to your kids on whether they should even be on it.
There are some messaging devices that just delete texts after they're sent, so parents can't really monitor what their kids are sending, 'cause they automatically delete.
Dr Daniel Amen: Right, Snapchat.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: That may not be the best idea for young kids.
Dr Daniel Amen: And how about for older people? I mean, I don't know if you've had sessions where you actually have to tell your patients, "You need to put down your phone. This is our time, you need to put down your phone."
Dr Jennifer Farrell: It baffles me that someone will come in and pay money to sit in front of me, to discuss life with me, to hear what I have to say, and take a phone call, read an email, or text in the middle of that session. Or check Facebook: "Oh, just a minute." "Excuse me?" But it follows people, that's just a great example of how it follows people everywhere, adults included.
Dr Daniel Amen: So, the addiction principles would be, the addiction treatment principles applied to social media, would be what?
Dr Jennifer Farrell: So, the first thing I would say, because a lot of people say that they're not addicted. So you have to look at the social media use and say, "Is this a problem? Is this getting in the way with your sleep? Are you staying up later because you're on your phone or your iPad? Is this getting in the way of work, your productivity? Or relationships?"
So, I used to have an assistant who's no longer here, who, every time I'd come in to ask for help with something was on a dating app. Swiping left and right. And I'd say, "Excuse me, I'm over here." You know, "I need this email sent," or, "Can you fax this," or, "Have you made this phone call yet?" So, it just kind of comes in everywhere. So, is it getting in the way with that?
Dr Daniel Amen: So that's one of the definitions of addiction, if you do something and it interferes with your life, in your health, your relationships, your work, your money, with the law.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Well, relationships-
Dr Daniel Amen: And you do it again ...
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Yeah.
Dr Daniel Amen: That's what we think of as an addiction.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Exactly. That's when it becomes an addiction. Walk into a restaurant, look around you. How many times have you seen entire families all looking down at their phones? They're not interacting. So, when we say, "Is this getting in the way of socializing? Is your social media getting in the way of you actually being social?"
It shifts people from this world of reality into this world of fantasy, where we just kind of are biding time in real life, just waiting to get back to this false sense of community, online. I have so many patients who come in to see me, and I ask them, "Well, do you have friends? Are you social?" And they say, "Of course I have friends." Well, they only have friends online.
Dr Daniel Amen: Right. Brand new study just out yesterday, the more time you spend online, the higher you are, as far as depressed, anxious, and lonely. Isn't that interesting? And there's other studies that show this is also associated with obesity, so. You have to be careful.
Dr Jennifer Farrell: Yes. And limit times, put limits on things. Only use your social media at a certain time, and put the phone away. I wanted to yell at my friend the other night, I had this fabulous dinner party, I like made the table, I was cooking with friends. I mean, I went all out. And this guy's checking his phone all night. I wanted to say, "Be here now. Like, don't post what you're doing, just be here with us." You know, really limiting that time. And if you can't limit that time, you need to talk to someone about it.
Dr Daniel Amen: It's an addiction.
Dr Daniel Amen: Be careful, social media may not be, is not, your friend. Stay with us.
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