Regardless of which generation you’re from, most people are familiar with social media. It’s morphed over the years, but the idea is the same—be seen and connect with others. Social media can be great. I’ve been able to keep in touch with people from years ago. I love seeing old roommates, friends, coworkers, and family travel to new place, grow their families, and start new businesses. But thankfully, I didn’t get a social media account until my freshman year of college. I say “thankfully” because social media seems to hold a power that makes me really uncomfortable. And that’s the power to train behaviors.
Think about it. How do you train a dog to sit? You get the dog to do the behavior and then you give it praise and a treat. It works like a charm—so much so it actually has a name—Operant Conditioning.
Operant conditioning is a form of behavior modification. It’s when we use rewards and punishments to reinforce either desirable or undesirable behaviors. It works because we like rewards, and we don’t like punishments. AND if the reward releases dopamine in the brain, then it works FAST in training a new behavior…it also tends to lead to addiction.
This principal is true in many areas of life: food, exercise, substances, sex, adrenaline rushes, and more all release dopamine. It can be a dangerous cycle to get into and a difficult cycle to break out of. We feel sad, we eat ice cream, dopamine is release, and we feel better. So, what happens the next time you’re sad? Your brain will tell you to go for more ice cream (because it worked), but it only works in the short-term. The same idea is true with all the activities above, but did you know getting likes on social media releases dopamine in the brain? It begs the question, what behaviors is it reinforcing?
The behaviors I’ve seen reinforced vary. I’ve seen many girls looking way older than their physical age, posing provocatively. I’ve seen “non-conformist” rants. I’ve seen vulnerability regarding mental health, and much more.
Slowly, but surely, the likes start to dictate the posts. People learn what gets a lot of likes and they continue to post in a similar manner. Sexy posts work? Sexy posts it is. My confession of cutting again works? Guess who’s going to cut again?
Some of the behaviors social media is reinforcing is harmless. No one has an issue with learning the “Fancy like” dance. But some of the things that are being reinforced have the potential of being hugely detrimental. It has the capacity to shape someone’s identity. Are teens forming identify based on values and self-discovery, or are they being shaped by what society deems likable? Rates of narcissism have increased with age of social media. “Cancel culture” has become more common (punishment for not behaving the way we like). And it makes it really hard, for teens especially, to disagree with popular opinion. Part of adolescence is about finding your identify—not your parents identify and not your friends, but yours. It’s hard to find a safe space to deviate from what’s accepted and likeable. Because it hurts to try and share yourself on social media, but not get any likes.
So, if you’re a teen reading this, I encourage you to keep trying to figure out whoever you are—what you believe, what you think, and what you value. Notice how you feel before, during, and after posting? What do you notice? What was your motivation? What was the result? What are you reinforcing by liking someone else’s post?
If you’re a parent reading this, I encourage you to talk to your kids about social media. But this blog isn’t just about teens—adults are affected by social media too—so you get the same questions that were asked above.
We can all take time to reflect on what we’re doing and what in our lives is shaping who we are. I agree with the notion of “you do you”, but only if it’s authentically you—not the product of a ❤.
**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado, you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).