Facebook, cocaine, opioids: How addictive is the social network?

The pitfalls of social media and in conjunction, its largest players, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, have been well documented. Former Facebook employees have called out the company for doing untold damages to people's brains and perhaps even "damaging how society works."

Even Facebook itself has acknowledged that using its services in a certain way may be detrimental to one's long-term health.

But according to some health specialists consulted by Fox News, the excessive use of social media, and to an extent Facebook as its biggest player, may wind up having a similar short-term impact as using opioids and cocaine.

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Opioids directly impact the brain's reward system, said Dr. Tara Emrani, psychologist at NYU Langone Health, releasing dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure seeking — similar to what happens when someone receives a Facebook "like" or comments.  

"Facebook likes and comments activate similar parts of the brain as opioids, where each like or positive comment activates the reward system and the brain releases dopamine," Dr. Emrani told Fox News via email. She noted similar sensations occur when someone eats food they enjoy, have sex or use other substances, including cocaine.

"So, arguably, the feelings/experiences of the brain as a result of Facebook likes or comments is similar to those resulting from cocaine, albeit less intense," Dr. Emrani added. "In addition, opioids have other significant negative effects on the brain, including shrinkage of grey matter and loss of memory."

Cocaine is not an opiate — rather it is "a powerfully addictive stimulant drug," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Opioids work directly with the nervous system to relieve pain, while impacting the brain’s reward system and releasing dopamine, "a chemical associated with pleasure seeking which makes it at risk for addiction and abuse," Dr. Emrani said.

Facebook has not responded to requests for comment from Fox News.

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Concerns about social media's impact

The link between using Facebook and getting a similar sensation to that of cocaine has been made previously.

A 2014 study from the University of Southern California likened the effects of scrolling through one's Facebook feed to that of the sensations experienced through cocaine use or gambling. 

Keith Humphreys, a professor and the Section Director for Mental Health Policy in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, said humans are social animals, so there's no reason to believe online social interaction would have a different reward pathway than what's seen in person.

"Drugs affect the same brain reward pathways that are fundamental to our functioning, i.e., the pathway that makes eating when we are hungry, getting warm when we are cold, feel good," Humphreys told Fox News via email. "So the fact that something activates the same pathway as cocaine doesn't mean it's addictive, just that it's rewarding."

The aforementioned dopamine effects discussed by Dr. Emrani have been in the spotlight recently after Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive and the CEO of venture capital firm Social Capital, said in a November interview that social media is damaging society and voiced concerns about its impact on his own children. 

"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works," Palihapitiya said in a November interview at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. "No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth. And it's not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other."

Facebook subsequently fired back at Palihapitiya, saying he had not worked at the company in six years and it was extremely different from the one he worked at. 

Palihapitiya later backtracked his comments, saying that "Facebook is a force for good in the world," while adding that his comments were meant to be used as a conversation starter on how to use social media responsibly.

No lasting long-term effects?  

While the short-term stimulative effects of getting "likes" or comments are well documented, what is unclear at this point are the long-term effects of using social media.

Former Facebook President Sean Parker said in a November interview he wasn't sure what the app was doing to the development of children's brains.

"I don't know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying, because [of] the unintended consequences of a network when it grows to a billion or 2 billion people and ... it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other ... It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways," Parker was quoted as saying. "God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains."

Dr. Emrani said that there is "no conclusive evidence for a long-term cause for concern from use of Facebook" according to the studies that have been done so far. 

Humphreys echoed these statements, but added that he does have concerns about the attention span in children, suspecting "it shortens it as people become used to constant stimulation and change." 

Facebook's impact and its response

To its credit, Facebook recently released the results of several studies showing that utilizing the site in what it deems a passive manner (i.e. reading articles, but not interacting) could be damaging to one's mental health. It also said that users who are more active on the platform (those talking to others and posting comments) see an improvement in their well-being. 

Dr. Emrani said that while using the platform could cause people to be isolated or subjected to negative views, it has become a "platform for individuals to seek support when they are experiencing distress, which then leads to an improved sense of self." 

Although comparisons have been made between using social media and the effects of using opioids, others aren't sure there is enough of a connection between the two.

"[T]he harms [of social media] are less clear than most addictions," Dr. Mark D. Sullivan, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences adjunct professor at the University of Washington told Fox News via email.

Dr. Sullivan did caution however, that he is not a user of social media.

Another expert, an assistant neurobiologist professor at a university in New York who declined to be named for this article, said it was a bit of a stretch to compare social media and opioids and specifically cocaine, citing the fact they "do not have the same potency and the same ability in disregulating the brain." The professor added that opioids also have other effects on other parts of the brain that are not related to reward circuits.

However, the professor did acknowledge that any rewarding activity done multiple times could "lead to some forms of abnormal plasticity and in some subjects' habit forming and addictive behaviors," similar to those seen in gambling, exercise, videogames and activities, citing data from the New England Journal of Medicine and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia