There’s zero compelling evidence showing tech is as addictive as cocaine, according to scientists

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  • Psychologists at the University of Oxford are highly sceptical of the media buzz around social media addiction.
  • Professor Andrew Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute believes that Silicon Valley engineers accept questionable psychological data as gospel when building their apps.
  • There is no reason to equate social media and hard drugs like cocaine according to researcher Amy Orben, although such comparisons are often made in media reports.
  • Both believe that getting caught up in the media hype around social media addiction acts as a dangerous distraction from more urgent problems in the tech industry, such as data privacy.

Social media addiction has become a familiar phrase. Silicon Valley insiders and psychologists have fuelled media reports saying that tech companies sprinkle “behavioural cocaine” over their interfaces. They say platforms like Facebook use psychological tricks to get us hooked on our digital devices.

But scientists at the Oxford Internet Institute disagree.

Professor Andrew Przybylski is an experimental psychologist and Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, and he thinks Silicon Valley “turncoats” don’t understand the psychology they claim to manipulate.

The inventor of infinite scrolling talks about the ‘Soup Bowl problem’ – but that research is problematic

One such example comes from Aza Raskin, a Silicon Valley engineer who designed the infinite scroll function which allows you to keep scrolling endlessly down your feed, now used on sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Raskin told the BBC’s Panorama programme that he’d been inspired by the soup bowl experiment. This is a psychological experiment based on the thesis that if you give someone a bowl of soup that secretly replenishes itself, they will eat more soup than from a regular bowl.

“There’s a famous experiment with soup bowls,” Raskin told Panorama. “If a bowl, silently by itself just keeps refilling itself, where you don’t see it. Do people eat more? It turns out yes people eat a lot more. Because you don’t have the cue of ‘I’ve finished.'”

He claimed that by mimicking the soup bowl experiment in his design, “it became so powerful that it just addicts people.”

The Soup Bowl experiment has been heavily criticised.

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The Soup Bowl experiment has been heavily criticised.
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Sergiy Artsaba/Shutterstock

But according to Andrew Przybylski, this experiment has been heavily criticised within the scientific community. “We now know that that research has been very sloppily done. The researcher himself is under multiple investigations at the university of Cornell for self-plagiarism, for data manipulation, he doesn’t keep very good records,” he told Business Insider.

“If you actually knew anything about the research area, you certainly wouldn’t tell BBC that you think that this research is the model that you use to create addictive technology.”

People talk about the dopamine high from Facebook likes but it’s not really addictive

Dopamine is a chemical released in the brain, often when we experience reward or pleasure. The “dopamine feedback loop” is sometimes held up as evidence that social media can affect our brains in the same way drugs do. The idea is that we become chemically dependent upon bursts of dopamine triggered by people ‘liking’ our posts on Facebook, or retweeting us on Twitter.

But while it’s true that interacting with social media can give your brain a dopamine shot, that does not mean you’re getting high. Your brain releases dopamine on an everyday basis.

While social media and cocaine both release dopamine, cocaine releases about 10 to 15 times more of the chemical.

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While social media and cocaine both release dopamine, cocaine releases about 10 to 15 times more of the chemical.
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Shutterstock/vchal

“Dopamine research itself shows that things like video games and technologies, they’re in the same realm as food and sex and learning and all of these everyday behaviours. Whereas things like cocaine, really you’re talking about 10, 15 times higher levels of free-flowing dopamine in the brain,” said Przybylski.

Amy Orben, a psychological researcher at the University of Oxford, is equally sceptical of the comparison between social media use and hard drugs. “Screens aren’t a chemical that gets ingested and a certain dose causes X and another certain dose causes Y,” she told Business Insider. “There’s no real scientific reason to equate technologies and hard drugs.”

Recently addiction expert and Clinical Director at Charter Harley Street Mandy Saligari told the same BBC Panorama documentary that giving a child a smartphone is “tantamount to giving them a gram of cocaine.”

While Orben thinks that it’s difficult to know how much technology parents should allow their children, the cocaine analogy exasperates her.

“If we have people who are seen as experts telling parents that giving their child a smartphone, which is a daily object of use, is like giving them a gram of cocaine it’s causing unnecessary concern in people who are already concerned,” she said.

The new tech antipathy might just be another type of marketing

To Andrew Przybylski’s mind, the hype surrounding social media addiction is the flipside of the methods tech companies employ to sell their products.

“It doesn’t mean that [tech companies] haven’t been successful making money or convincing people that what they do has science behind it. But when they talk about colour [choices], or when they talk about soup bowl research, or they start talking about dopamine, you know they don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Przybylski.

He believes this marketing of bad science is what turns Silicon Valley insiders into self-styled whistleblowers. “The same hype that hopefully sells stock in Facebook or whatever, that shows ‘we can change people’s minds’ and ‘we can change their opinions and purchasing decisions’ or whatever, that same hype happens on the other side when people try to be scaremongers.”

“It doesn’t have any more or less science in it, it’s just that the message has flipped. But the evidence hasn’t,” he said.

Amy Orben also believes that the media has played a role in whipping up a fear of addictive technology by using comparisons to drugs. “I think in that way they have become very useful metaphors in a kind of attention-led economy.”

Social media might indeed be bad for people – but there isn’t enough research yet

Professor Przybylski views the language of social media addiction as a new kind of moral panic. “It’ll be like the other moral panics we’ve had. We used to be panicked about Dungeons and Dragons, and rap music, and violent video games. And now this is the thing we’re panicking over.”

He believes that getting swept up in panic and bad science could give big tech companies leeway to get away with serious ethical shortfalls. “Taking this hype for granted distracts us from very serious questions about who owns our data, very serious questions about privacy, and user consent. And it distracts us from doing good research,” he said.

“If we’re so busy being the boy who cried wolf, we’re not actually going to get any better [at] detecting wolves.”

Neither Professor Przybylski nor Amy Orben rule out the possibility that social media can negatively affect human behaviour, but both emphasise the need for further research.

“The main takeaway here is that we don’t actually know these things,” said Przybylski. “It is important for these large companies to share their data with researchers, and share their data with the public. This research needs to be done transparently, it can’t just be a bunch of Cambridge Analyticas and one-on-one relationships between social media companies and researchers. It needs to be out in the open, but the problem is when this stuff gets hyped up, it distracts us from that.”