Interview With Brain Chemistry Expert Loretta G. Breuning, PhD, on the Science of Social Media Addiction

Health Science

Over two months ago, I said farewell to Facebook and slowly started to remove myself from the more addictive forms of social media. Today, I’m happy to say my stress levels are down and my overall happiness is much greater. Turns out, there was some science behind my decision, and today, brain chemistry expert Loretta G. Breuning, PhD, gives us a look into why social media is addicting and how we can break some of the holds it has on us.


Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, is a renowned brain chemistry expert who has devoted her career to researching the evolution of the human brain and the science of happiness and contentment. She is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. Her many prior books on mammalian brain chemistry have been translated into ten languages and cited in major media. She has helped thousands of enthusiastic fans to make peace with their inner mammal.

GeekMom: What is the correlation between happiness and checking your social media status for likes or comments?

Loretta G. Breuning, PhD: Three different happy chemicals are stimulated!

  • Oxytocin when you feel accepted.
  • Serotonin when you feel important.
  • Dopamine when you anticipate the good feeling of oxytocin and serotonin. Dopamine is what motivates you to “check your numbers” one more time.

The urge to be accepted and important is not what you think with your conscious verbal brain, but it’s easy to see that this motivates us. They are two different chemical rewards and we want both. They’re quickly metabolized, so we want them again and again.

GM: In your opinion, do you think social media hurts the mental health of its users?

LB, PhD: Yes and no.

No: All through human history, people have done crazy things to stimulate the good feeling of serotonin and oxytocin. Two hundred years ago, it was cool to have a small waist, and people did crazy things to get a small waist. Every generation comes up with new ways to compete for social importance. But the problem is not the technology but the natural impulse that we must learn to manage. People who ignore social media could be harming their mental health in equivalent ways with a desperate urge for social approval.

Yes: We evolved to seek social support. Social media is a fast easy way to get social support. But you know it’s not real support, so you need more and more. It’s the equivalent of junk food, which doesn’t meet a deeper need so you want more and more. What we really need is mutual, reciprocal support, and the only way to get that is by building one-to-one bonds the old-fashioned way. Excuse me for saying, Moms, that casual sex is exactly the same–the illusion of social support without actual social support. So once again, the technology itself is not the problem.

GM: If someone is addicted to checking their status to get a happiness kick, what other activities would you suggest they involve themselves in instead?

LB, PhD: Yes, that is the right question!!! The need to find an activity that meets the same needs for social support, social importance, and the excitement of new achievement. Here’s a simple example: let’s say a young person starts gardening. It stimulates dopamine when they notice the new growth, and feel the empowerment of their own actions creating that growth. It stimulates serotonin when they feel pride in their skill. It stimulates oxytocin if they share the experience with others in any way. Obviously, this could apply to any activity or hobby, so a young person has to find one that gives them a sense of ownership and control. Cooking. Painting. Playing a musical instrument, etc.

GM: What advice do you have for someone who wants to hack their brain and trick it into producing the chemicals they need to feel happy?

LB, PhD: I have written many books on this (including my most recent book Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop and have a huge number of free resources on this on my site). To give you the shortest answer:

#1 Dopamine (Embrace a new goal)
Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. When a lion approaches a gazelle, her dopamine surges and the energy she needs for the hunt is released. Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole. The good feeling surged before they actually sipped the water. Just seeing signs of a water-hole turned on the dopamine. Just smelling a gazelle turns on dopamine. The expectation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammal brain, and releases the energy you need to reach the reward. Dopamine alerts your attention to things that meet your needs. How you define your needs depends on your unique life experience. Each time dopamine flowed in your youth, it connected neurons in your brain. Now you’re wired you to meet your needs in ways that felt good in your past.

Dopamine motivates you to seek, whether you’re seeking a medical degree or a parking spot near the donut shop. Dopamine motivates persistence in the pursuit of things that meet your needs, whether it’s a bar that’s open late, the next level in a video game, or a way to feed children. You can stimulate the good feeling of dopamine without behaviors that hurt your best interests. Embrace a new goal and take small steps toward it every day. Your brain will reward you with dopamine each time you take a step. The repetition will build a new dopamine pathway until it’s big enough to compete with the dopamine habit that you’re better off without.

#2 Serotonin (Believe in yourself)
Confidence triggers serotonin. Monkeys try to one-up each other because it stimulates their serotonin. People often do the same. This brain we’ve inherited rewards social dominance because that promotes your genes in the state of nature. As much as you may dislike this, you enjoy the good feeling of serotonin when you feel respected by others. Your brain seeks more of that feeling by repeating behaviors that triggered it in your past. The respect you got in your youth paved neural pathways that tell your brain how to get respect today. Sometimes people seek it in ways that undermine their long-term well-being. The solution is not to dismiss your natural urge for status, because you need the serotonin. Instead, you can develop your belief in your own worth. People are probably respecting you behind your back right now. Focus on that instead of scanning for disrespect. Everyone has wins and losses. If you focus on your losses you will depress your serotonin, even if you’re a rock star or a CEO. You can build the habit of focusing on your wins. You may think it’s cocky or risky or lame, but your serotonin will suffer if you don’t.

#3 Oxytocin (Build trust consciously)
Trust triggers oxytocin. Mammals stick with a herd because they inherited a brain that releases oxytocin when they do. Reptiles cannot stand the company of other reptiles, so it’s not surprising that they only release oxytocin during sex. Social bonds help mammals protect their young from predators, and natural selection built a brain that rewards us with a good feeling when we strengthen those bonds. Sometimes your trust is betrayed. Trusting someone who is not trustworthy is bad for your survival. Your brain releases unhappy chemicals when your trust is betrayed. That paves neural pathways which tell you when to withhold trust in the future. But if you withhold trust all the time, you deprive yourself of oxytocin. You can stimulate it by building trust consciously. Create realistic expectations that both parties can meet. Each time your expectations are met, your brain rewards you with a good feeling. Continual small steps will build your oxytocin circuits. Trust, verify, and repeat. You will grow to trust yourself as well as others.

GM: How can people of all ages reduce the stress chemicals in their brains? Are there any apps or games that could help?

LB, PhD: Stress is the anticipation of a threat. A gazelle feels threatened when it smells a predator, but when there’s no evidence, a gazelle doesn’t release the stress chemical (cortisol) because it is too busy trying to get enough food to stay alive. Our human brain is big enough to imagine threats when they’re not there. Finding food doesn’t use up our energy the way it did with our ancestors so we have more time to imagine potential threats. Yikes! What threats do we imagine? Whatever threatened us when we were young because that built our neural pathways. So the solution is to build new neural pathways. For example, when a gazelle escapes a predator, it goes back to enjoying the grass. And even when it’s running, it focuses on its next step rather than on the predator. We need to wire ourselves to focus on the joy of stepping toward green pasture instead of on threats. You do it with repetition. Each time you catch yourself imagining threats, you consciously focus on your next step toward rewards. AND TURN OFF THE NEWS. THAT GIVES YOU ENDLESS THREAT FEELINGS AND IS THE CAUSE OF ALL THESE MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS.

Dr. Loretta G. Breuning’s book Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or by visiting Inner Mammal Institute’s website. You can follow Dr. Breuning on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram

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