November 29, 2023

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

By Annalise Murray (16th November 2022)

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born in 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, to Grace and William Skinner. He sold elderberries door to door, tried and failed to build a perpetual motion machine, and grew up to change the course of modern society.

Burrhus Frederic was a disillusioned writer who turned to science and subsequently grandfathered radical behaviourism – the idea that our environment influences our thoughts and feelings. Whilst a graduate student at Harvard in the late 1920s, Burrhus Frederic (or maybe you know him just as B.F.) invented the Skinner box: a sound-proof, light-proof chamber with some way for the subject to interact with the box (for instance, by pushing a button or pulling a lever) and a means of producing a stimulus in response to that interaction (by dispensing food or producing a light or electrifying the floor). The Skinner box was to demonstrate that our behaviour is influenced less by classical conditioning (the association between stimulus and an involuntary response – think Pavlov’s dogs) and more by operant conditioning (where a voluntary behaviour comes to be associated with a consequence).

The idea of the Skinner box was that the rats would learn that pulling a lever led the box to dispense food, and they’d continue to pull the lever in order to access more food. Some rats would be rewarded with a pellet of food every time they pulled the lever, which is known as continuous reinforcement. Others would be rewarded only after a set number of pulls, or a certain amount of time, which is partial reinforcement.

By far the most powerful form of conditioning, however, proved to be variable reinforcement. Rather than dispense the food after a set number of pulls or a certain amount of time, the box would dispense a reward after some random amount of time or number of pulls. Reward the rats randomly, and they keep tugging away at the lever long after all the others have stopped. Skinner’s subjects were usually rats, and sometimes pigeons; Burrhus Frederic was vehemently opposed to experimentation in humans.

According to the Millennium Cohort study, the average teenager spends about three hours a day on social media. About a fifth spend more than five hours a day scrolling – a figure that rises to almost a third amongst teenage girls. When you expand the question to take in all screen-based entertainment, it’s almost eight hours a day.

Social media is built precisely on the principles of Skinner’s box. The rats, knowing there’ll be a reward but not knowing when, continue to pull the lever; we flip between the same five apps, checking-scrolling-checking-scrolling.  The rats eventually get some food; we see a comment or a new post or a picture of a cat. Somewhere in our brain, a neurone pings off a little bit of dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter released when we eat or exercise or have sex, or, as it goes, see something new on Instagram. It’s a reward. You did well. We feel good. Now do it again. The rats keep pulling the lever, we keep scrolling, and soon we both find we can’t stop.

I don’t know how much time I spend on my smartphone. I turned off my screen time, because I felt too much shame about what it might tell me.

Here’s what I do know: I spend multiple hours a day on my phone. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I see at night. I’m perennially looking for something new, to the extent that I’ll sometimes close and then immediately reopen the same app. I’ll look for something to entertain me before I complete the simplest tasks.

Here’s some more: my concentration is completely shot. I skim and skip when I read. I begin to feel an oppressive, griping sort of boredom at completing any singular task without something else to occupy me. I can’t regulate my anxiety or low mood without turning off my thoughts.

I’ve come to refer to my combination of symptoms – decreased attention span, constant need for stimulation, impaired emotional processing – as brain rot. This past summer, after finally acknowledging the rot, I took to Google. ‘Social media addiction’ was pretty fruitless – it reassured me that, unless my smartphone use interferes with my ability to work (it doesn’t) or hold down relationships (only the one with myself), then it isn’t a problem.

I turned, instead, to Scholar. My queries – ‘social media brain changes’, ‘social media brain development’ – left me mostly empty-handed. It quickly became apparent that, given we’re turning over years of our lives to social media, we understand shockingly little of what it’s doing to our brains.

But my avenues weren’t exhausted, because some people have been in the box since Twitter was a gleam in Jack Dorsey’s eye. Variable reinforcement isn’t just a feature of social media – it can also be the compelling force behind playing MMOs, shopping online, browsing forums, and, most notably, gambling. I tried ‘gambling addiction brain changes’ and hit the jackpot: a 2015 review in Current Addiction Reports, entitled Brain Imaging in Gambling Disorder.

Here’s what they found. Problem gamblers showed diminished executive functioning, impaired decision making and impulse control, enhanced reward sensitivity in response to gambling-related stimuli but overall reduced reward sensitivity, and even structural changes to brain connectivity.

That’s my brain rot. That’s just like my brain rot.

My observational study of one proves precisely nothing at all, of course. Even when it comes to gambling disorder, which is far older and better documented than social media addiction, there’s a lot we don’t know. We lack good-quality longitudinal studies; we don’t know whether brain differences are innate, and predispose gamblers to addiction, or if they’re caused by the mechanisms of addiction. We don’t know how much of this might apply to social media.

But, hell, shouldn’t we at least be trying to find out? If there’s even a vague possibility that the machines to which we turn over a fifth of our waking lives are also impeding our ability to think coherently, shouldn’t we do something about that? We haven’t got a chance of solving the climate crisis at this rate; we can’t even sit through dinner without being overwhelmed by the pull of our smartphones.

More than half of the global population has a social media profile; the average daily usage is close to two and a half hours. Social media firms invest vast sums of money trying to increase those numbers further. The research is limited, and the regulation is virtually non-existent. This is a problem bigger than Burrhus Frederic who sold elderberries in the Pennsylvania hills and couldn’t possibly have known what would come of his radical behaviourism. It’s bigger than the programmers who write social media’s algorithms, and bigger than the executives who compel them to do so. It’s a societal-level problem, and it’s going to require a societal-level solution.

But in the meantime, I suppose we have to try. I’ve had mixed success at curing my brain rot. I ditched Instagram and Twitter, only to rapidly replace them with TikTok. I set screen time limits and ignore them. I move my phone away from my bed and then put it back. I read an average of fifty books a year and I rarely manage to sit through a film. I try not to scroll too much, but sometimes, especially when those times are as difficult as they’ve often been lately, the urge to shut my brain off is too strong. But I’ll try again, fail again, fail better, because this could not be more important. This is about reclaiming our attention from those who spent a lot of time and money trying to capture it. It’s about reclaiming our days – and, by extension, reclaiming our lives.