Dear Facebook Friends, We Have to Stop Seeing Each Other Like This

Insula and Somatosensory Cortex

Look, we all love facebook, but it’s hurting both us and our relationships. At its best, it unites us despite the separation of time and space, allowing us to discover and maintain friendships from long ago or far away. It offers a powerful platform for organizing grass-roots political movements and coordinated disaster-response efforts. However, all of this comes at a cost. How would you feel if you knew that facebook use inflicts measurable, physical pain on nearly every one of its 2.27 billion users?

Pain in the Brain

Let’s start with defining pain. Research has shown that pain consists primarily two components—the sensory and the affective—and those components reside in identifiable parts of the brain. The somatosensory cortices allow us to know where we are injured while the posterior insula tells us how bad it is. The physical experience of pain is what we call the “sensory component.” The “affective component”—provided by the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula—gives us the feeling that the pain is unpleasant.

Across different languages, people describe social pain—the experiences of rejection, exclusion, and grief—with words that are normally associated with physical pain. We might say dépit (the itchy sensation of spite) in French, or toska (a dull ache of the soul, sick pining) in Russian, and that led researchers to wonder which regions of the brain were involved in those experiences of social pain. This brings us to Cyberball 1.

In 2003, a group of scientists designed a computer game to explore the neural activity of social pain. Participants were greeted with the above welcome screen that included these instructions:

In a few moments, you will be playing a ball tossing game with other students over our network. The game is very simple. When the ball is tossed to you, simply click on the name of the player you want to throw it to. When the game is over, the experimenter will give you additional instructions.

Of course, none of the participants were actually paired with other humans. Instead, they were separated into three groups—inclusive, non-inclusive, and exclusive,—where the other “players” were programmed with different behaviors.

In the first group, the computer players were programmed to wait for a short randomized interval before making a throw to make it seem like they were actually other people making choices, but their throws were random. The participant got to throw the ball as many times as everybody else. In the non-inclusive group, participants were told that the game was having a problem connecting and they weren’t going to be able to actually play the game. They would just have to watch the other players play instead. Finally, the exclusive group had computer players that programmed to include the participant for the first third of the game, then stop throwing them the ball for the remainder of it.

Cyberball Welcome Screen

When participants were socially excluded, the fMRI showed increased activity in the dACC and the anterior insula. Greater feelings of rejection were associated with a comparable increase in that activity, and participants who were more sensitive to pain in general were more affected by the feelings of exclusion. Sometimes just seeing an image that represents social rejection can activate these affective-pain-related regions. 2

We would expect the affective component of pain to be present during the experience of social pain, but what about the sensory component? Another group of researchers devised a different test. They recruited participants who had experienced an unwanted break-up over the past six months, felt rejected by it, but passed a screening for psychiatric illness and psychoactive medication. Participants were told they would participate in a Social Rejection task and a Physical Pain task.

The Social Rejection task compared of two trials, the Friend trial and the Ex-partner trial. In the first case, participants saw a picture of a friend who was the same gender as their ex and thought about a recent pleasant memory involving them. In the second, participants looked at a picture of the partner who dumped them and thought about the details of their breakup. The Physical Pain task consisted of warm and hot stimuli applied to the participants’ forearms.

In both the Ex-partner trial and the Physical pain task, participants showed activity in the affective and the sensory regions associated with pain in the brain. The researchers’ conclusion?

The combined fMRI and meta-analysis results suggest that the distress elicited in response to intense social rejection may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.3

Social Rejection and the Social Network

Whenever we open facebook, we are re-entering the largest ongoing game of Cyberball in history. Think of each “like” as a toss. When someone likes one of your posts, they are passing the ball to you, and you’re passing it back when you like one of theirs. So what happens when you look at your newsfeed, and it’s full of other people’s posts with other people’s likes on them?

Well, you might feel a little excluded, at least on the subconscious level. Remember, in Cyberball the only distinguishing characteristic given to each of the players was their name – we don’t have to know who the other players are to feel excluded. With notifications, we can get a sense of how many times the ball has been tossed to us, but the ever-refreshing newsfeed at the center of facebook shows us how many times the ball is being tossed without us. The number of times we see others pass the ball will always be greater than the number of times it is tossed to us, therefore we will inevitably be left with that feeling of exclusion.

In fact, that exclusion doesn’t even have to be intentional for us to feel the sting of rejection. In the above study, the participants in the third group reported less pain than the second even though they were being actively excluded. Researchers hypothesized that the individuals, after recognizing they were being excluded, may have implemented coping mechanisms that helped them manage their emotional response. Participants in the second group—who were told they simply couldn’t play—reported more pain than either of the other groups, despite knowing the reason for their exclusion was nothing personal.

This means that no matter how much we interact with our facebook friends, their regular experience with the platform will still be one of rejection, exclusion, and social pain. When it comes to the most meaningful relationships to us, social scientist Robin Dunbar found that we don’t have more than about twenty, and that number doesn’t change much with the addition of additional friends. On average, people have about five friends they can count on for support in times of crisis—their “support clique”—and about fifteen more they still consider close friends, which Dunbar calls the “sympathy group”.4

When 73% of our facebook friends are not our close friends, it can become hard to find opportunities to engage with those that are. Our friends get buried in a feed of coworkers and casual acquaintances interacting with other people who are also less likely to toss the ball to us, and the notification bar sits there quietly keeping score. Unsurprisingly, people who are more sensitive to physical pain are also more sensitive to social pain, and mental illness compounds the problem. What can we do to manage the social pain of using facebook?

Social Pain Management

It’s natural to wonder, “If social pain is the same as physical pain, couldn’t I just take a Tylenol whenever I wanted to feel less lonely?” The answer, surprisingly, is “Yes!” And also, “Don’t.”
As early as the 1970s, Jaak Panskepp discovered a relationship between mu-opioids—neurotransmitters that process pain—and separation distress. Specifically, he discovered that mu-opioid-related drugs like morphine or codeine reduce separation-distress vocalizations made by infants separated from their mothers across several mammalian species. It’s reasonable to infer that pain medication could reduce the experience of social pain, which might explain some of the reason people develop habits of opioid abuse. In fact, the correlation has already been demonstrated.

In 2010, researchers conducted a study where participants were randomly assigned to either take a daily dose of Tylenol (acetaminophen) or a placebo for three weeks. Every evening, they were required to report their hurt feelings, and results showed that the group taking acetaminophen had a significant reduction in hurt feelings over three weeks.5 A subsequent study modified the experiment to have the participants play Cyberball—once again divided into inclusive, non-inclusive, and exclusive groups. Instead of reporting their hurt feelings, and the Tylenol group actually showed less pain-related activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula than the placebo group did in response to social exclusion.

So why can’t we all just take Tylenol and get back to facebooking? Well, a study in 2016 found that acetaminophen also reduces empathy for pain, whether social or physical, and that’s an unacceptable side effect. Then we’re taking a drug to enable us to bear the pain of using a service that causes other people pain, to which the drug makes us oblivious. Furthermore, that numbness or lack of empathy for another’s pain and suffering could have unforeseen real-world consequences on the way we make decisions in service of the greater good. We need that ability to empathize if we are going to exercise compassion, which is a much healthier way to manage the pain of social isolation.

Three Ways to Minimize Social Pain

Obviously, we should both quit facebook cold turkey and delete our accounts, but you’re not going to do that and neither am I. The answers why are too complicated to go into right now, but we can’t keep seeing each other like this, so here are some steps we can take to develop a healthier relationship to facebook.

1. Identify Habits and Set Boundaries

The first step is to understand exactly how much time we’re spending on facebook. This is easy to do if we’re primarily using our cellphones––features like Screen Time on iOS and Digital Wellbeing on Android do all the work for us and present the results in tidy little graphs. On the web, there are extensions like Waste No Time that do the same thing.

These apps also let us set limits. Let’s say that I find out I’m using facebook for two hours total each day. That might not sound like much, but add it up and I’m spending 30 days on facebook every year—that’s a whole month! I can use the App Limits feature of Screen Time to limit my daily facebook use and when I reach the allotted time, my iPhone will lock me out until the next day. An hour is a good place to start, but shoot for thirty minutes.

2. Change Up the Routine

Next, it’s important to be mindful and notice when we’re picking up the phone or sitting down at the computer to use facebook. Is it waiting for the bus when there’s nothing else to do? Is it because our alarm clocks are just apps next to facebook on our phones, making it easy to be the first thing we look at in the morning? Or maybe we just ordered food at the restaurant and we’re grouchy and hungry and don’t really want to talk right now. We need to identify the circumstances that lead to us logging on to facebook and try to circumvent them where we can.

As an example, my alarm clock has been my smartphone for as long as I’ve had one. Usually, I would go to bed browsing facebook or reddit, then plug my phone in to the charger when I got sleepy so it would wake me up in the morning. Then, after turning off the alarm, there was facebook, right where I left it. I didn’t have any alternatives for an alarm clock, so I ended up plugging it in across the room from my bed, where I would have to get up to silence it. That small act of getting out of bed before interacting with my phone gave me the chance I needed to avoid logging in to facebook.

3. Participate in Other Forms of Socializing

Once we reduce our engagement with facebook, it will be tempting to compensate by engaging in other social media services like Twitter, Instagram, or whatever platform is more relevant now. We need to resist this temptation, but we also need to maintain social contact with our support cliques and sympathy groups.

Try to engage in at least one social activity with friends or family every week and look for more opportunities to say yes to socializing. As an introvert, I know it can be intimidating to organize an event, but something as low key as a board game night where you and some friends order pizza and spend some time together face-to-face is a fine place to start. We need to cultivate our in-person social relationships, especially with our core groups.

Of course there are some friends we can’t see as regularly with whom we would like to stay in touch. Consider developing a written correspondence with them. Everyone enjoys getting mail! Or, if they prefer to speak in real time, try establish a direct phone or video call routine. My fiancée tries to call her parents every Sunday.

Conclusion

This is a very new issue for us, so the research is understandably scant, but more studies are conducted every day. Some researchers are discovering connections between the big five personality factors and an individual’s facebook use to see if they can create a predictive model.6 Others are discovering adverse health effects and unhealthy behaviors.7 It’s important to stay aware of the effects platforms like facebook can have on our well-being as technology becomes more irreversibly integrated into our lives.


1. https://williams.socialpsychology.org

2. Kross, E., et al. “Social Rejection Shares Somatosensory Representations with Physical Pain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 15, 2011, pp. 6270–6275., doi:10.1073/pnas.1102693108.

3. Kross, Ethan, et al. “Neural Dynamics of Rejection Sensitivity.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, vol. 19, no. 6, 30 May 2007, pp. 945–956., doi:10.1162/jocn.2007.19.6.945.

4. Dunbar, R. I. M. “Do Online Social Media Cut through the Constraints That Limit the Size of Offline Social Networks?” Royal Society Open Science, vol. 3, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2016, p. 150292., doi:10.1098/rsos.150292.

5. Dewall, C. Nathan, et al. “Acetaminophen Reduces Social Pain.” Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 7, 2010, pp. 931–937., doi:10.1177/0956797610374741.

6. Sala, Louise La, et al. “Personality Traits and Facebook Use: The Combined/Interactive Effect of Extraversion, Neuroticism and Conscientiousness.” Social Networking, vol. 03, no. 05, Oct. 2014, pp. 211–219., doi:10.4236/sn.2014.35026.

7. Al-Dubai, Sami Abdo Radman, et al. “Adverse Health Effects and Unhealthy Behaviors among Medical Students Using Facebook.” The Scientific World Journal, vol. 2013, Oct. 2013, pp. 1–5., doi:10.1155/2013/465161.