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Brainstorm: Social media addiction: narcotics for the brain.

By Johan Steyn, July 2022

I’ve been a Facebook user for many years. I joined the platform when I was living abroad, and it was a wonderful way to stay connected with friends and family back home. After I returned to South Africa, I was able to stay in touch with many of my friends who were living in countries across the world.

People use the power of social media platforms for various reasons and in different ways. For me, it was a way to stay connected with real friends. I say ‘real’ as I’ve always only connected with the relatively few people who I know personally and who became good friends over the years. These days, it’s a joy to see posts from my friends and to know that they’re doing well and to witness – albeit virtually – how their children are growing up.

I often share updates and pictures of my son and myself. I do what most people likely do: I take numerous pictures of a situation or an event and choose only the best ones to post online. That doesn’t make me inauthentic, does it? It’s human nature to want to look good and to portray oneself as happy and successful.

But herein lies the problem. For the most part, social media portrays only the best of people. These platforms have created a false view of the lives of others and often lead to depression. You might think that your own life is ordinary only to see the posts of friends who are on holiday and seem perpetually happy. Why are they so happy? Why are their relationships so admirable? Why is my life so ordinary and troublesome and unlike theirs?

Over the years, I’ve often considered leaving the platform. At first, it was a genuine tool to connect with others, but nowadays, my feed is filled with posts and advertising I didn’t subscribe to and am not interested in. Where Facebook should have widened my world to learn from others and witness their journey through life, it’s become a depressing dilemma in making life smaller. The algorithms are really my friends. They know me better than anyone and they make sure I see only the content that supports my paradigms and feeds my biases.

They also make sure I stay on the platform as long and often as possible. It’s become an addiction. Should I leave Facebook as many of my friends have done? I think so, but I also fear I may be missing out on things that have formed my impressions and views for years. I fear being disconnected from life.

Dopamine infusion

Why are we seemingly unable to live without it? Social media can be addictive and has been shown to affect endorphins in the brain. It is the ‘happy’ chemical that causes us to feel good when we’re around people we love or enjoy a tasty meal.

These dopamine-inducing virtual environments contribute to the phenomenon of social media addiction. Studies show that they create brain pathways like recreational drug use in order to keep consumers addicted to their products.

Retweets, likes, and shares on these sites produce the same physiological response in the brain's reward area as narcotics like cocaine. Even neuroscientists have linked social media use to a direct dopamine infusion into the brain.

Perhaps I should look for a ‘Social Media Anonymous’ group to help me overcome my addiction?

Rated as one of the top 50 global voices on Artificial Intelligence by Swiss Cognitive, Prof. Johan Steyn is on the faculty of Woxsen University, a research fellow with Stellenbosch University and the founder of


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