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Posted 19 Aug 2021

Is Social Media Harming The Neurodiversity Community?

The subject of social media and dopamine has been on my mind for some time now. As an ADHD-er who is biologically dopamine deficient I know on a personal level how susceptible I am to the power of likes, clicks and shares and have been working to ensure that I maintain healthy boundaries. The luxury to be able to abandon social media entirely however is a modern privilege because for most of us it is part of either our working life, or the best way to stay in the loop with far away friends and family. For the disabled community it is also a life-line, giving access to social groups and activities that might otherwise be off limits.

Last week the British Psychological Society Research Digest encouraging me to delve a little deeper into what type of content is most likely to capture our attention.  Referencing a study in PNAS, I found that found we are more likely to share negative posts, especially if they are about our perceived opponent or an outside group that we disagree with. The study used politics as the frame, but highlighted the connection between our compulsive use of social media and a shift towards binary and polarized thinking, which is relevant in many spheres, including the Neurodiversity community.

Yes, we all get angry about the things that make us passionate (and rightly so) but are we being drawn into a kind of addictive rage where chastisement and assumptions make us feel so much better than atonement and nuance? For those of us in the Neurodivergent community who are already inclined to speak directly, fight for justice, and stand our ground are we being dragged too far down a divisive path simply because of the dopamine reward?

Dopamine And Behavior

Dopamine is a chemical that sends messages from our body to our brain to let us know when we are “satisfied”. It plays an important role in our mood and helps to motivate us. When we encounter an activity that boosts our dopamine levels we are motivated to do it again because we anticipate what the outcome will be and we desire it. Because of this process, dopamine is habit-forming.

We have known for decades, from the work of Behavioral Psychologist BF Skinner, that when dopamine is triggered on a variable schedule it is more addictive than if we receive it consistently. Before the internet, slot machines were designed with this in mind, and so were most social media platforms. We know this because multiple members of the tech community have admitted it openly. We keep checking in and coming back, not knowing exactly when we will have that next reaction or comment to make us feel good is compelling.

Whilst at this stage I believe most people are aware to some degree that they find apps and social media addictive, how many are aware that we are further being encouraged towards anger-based content? As the article states “we’re often concerned about social media becoming an “echo chamber”, where people only hear from others who they agree with. The study suggests the problem isn’t simply that people only hear from their in-group, but that the posts they are most likely to see may actively promote animosity towards the out-group.”

The result of this has now become a vicious cycle. Angry and negative content gets more shares so the companies are motivated to focus their and your attention in that direction.  The article explains further that “There are benefits to going viral: politicians or media outlets might gain followers, while social media companies rely on audience engagement for revenue. So, this kind of polarizing content is actually being incentivized by the very structure of the social media platforms.”

With this realization, we can now see that social media is actively training our behaviour. We feel rewarded by dopamine for sharing outrage-based content and having others agree, and this content is increasingly feeding us more negative viewpoints.

The Neurominority community in general are aware that we are at increased risk from techniques likes this. Some of us find nuance and tone difficult to perceive, some of us are innately dopamine deficient. Some of us have experienced our differences as oppression and seek the healing power of finally finding an “in group” to which we can belong. However, Autistic people specifically have been very outspoken about techniques that seek to modify behaviour through rewards such as “Applied Behavioral Analysis” (ABA) and the internet is akin to ABA acting at the societal level without our best interests at heart. We don’t want to be manipulated into polarization. So how do we find balance and maintain self-awareness without having to turn our backs fully on social media?

Can We Self Correct?

We are going to have to double down on checking ourselves and each other. In the online sphere, how much of our anger is actually coming from us projecting meaning without knowing all the facts? How often do we assume our first perception of something is correct and then refuse to adjust our thinking after more facts are revealed? When was the last time you engaged in a good faith debate with someone that was respectful on both sides? This is not the same as blanket forgiveness for those who do us wrong and we can still hold our boundaries when we feel threatened, but we can withdraw rather than escalate. This is also not an argument for tone policing, but rather a reminder that a lack of context, detail and humanity can often see us heading down an unnecessarily combative path.

In the book “Conflict is Not Abuse,” author and creative Sarah Schulman explains that a function of good relationships is to challenge each other when we do wrong. We should be asking “what do you think they meant by that?” and “what have you actually seen or heard here, is it possible that you’ve misinterpreted the situation?” My good friends and colleagues might send me a DM to point out when I’ve said something that could be interpreted negatively, or challenge me on an escalation. Healthy relationships don’t accept everything you say in a rant as gospel, they allow a little steam and then help us return to our values. The book’s strapline is “Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair.” Ms Schulman explains that the same tools required for repair on a personal level will be effective at the societal level. We need to role model the behaviours we request in others, note when we are in fact the aggressor and learn how to walk it back, with elegance. We need to reject the rabbit hole that our virtual existence is leading us into and support each other to travel back to a place of mutual positive regard, or as Dr Caitlin Walker says, “From Contempt to Curiosity.”

Is This Relevant At Work?

In short, yes. Social Media affects all of us at work. In my company, my social media team recently took a break from interactions and posted only scheduled activities to take a break, as the pile ons had triggered them at the personal level of their own Neurodivergence. Our colleagues communicate via social media. They may engage in activity online which affects their reputation and career. They may take a stand and be criticized for it back in the office. Social media permeates through our daily lives and into all our workspaces, and the communication style it engenders is more likely to drip back into professional team relations. Those of us who are more easily seduced by social media need support to find the balance, those who rely on the internet for our “in group” are more easily hurt when it goes awry. Businesses that aren’t thinking creatively about how to support virtual communication via apps and platforms are setting themselves up for a fall. Since we can predict this, we can plan for it and the first step is to have some open conversations. Ask if anyone would like a safe space to debrief interactions they’ve had online. Offer your own learning experiences to role model safety. Remember that some colleagues are more vulnerable than others online.

I am putting it out there right now that I am open to challenge, curious questions about my intent and learning more when I have posted anything which has offended you. The big problems of our time, social justice, economic inequality, climate crisis, discrimination, oppression, mental health distress, violence and learning how to operate in complex systems – all these rely on our ability to overcome the dopamine addiction of a soapbox rant.

In business, we often fail to engage the critical thinking brain, miss the wider contextual issues and focus on cause/effect mechanics rather than systems. Dopamine isn’t a bad thing. We can get it by having enough to eat, social support and authentic connection, achieving valuable goals. When our communities and workspaces are inclusive and healthy, perhaps our colleagues will have less need to seek solace on the internet.