Empty Social Calories - The Unforeseen Consequences of Digital Friendships

The digitization (and monetization) of our social networks represents a change no less significant than that of the agricultural revolution. However, unlike the 10,000 year span within which hunting and gathering gave way to agriculturalism, the emergence of social media as a mainstay of our relationship "diet" has taken place within a single generation.

In the Paleo, Primal, Ancestral Health community (pick your label) is is considered common knowledge that a shift towards grain based agriculture, and, much later, the industrialization of foodstuffs occurred concomitant with the emergence of so called diseases of civilization such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Our "thrifty" genes, shaped over millions of years of scarcity and survival are ill equipped in an age of obscene plenty. Yet, we are much more forgiving of the insidious rise of social media.

Should we be concerned? The answer is a resounding yes.

Social Media is Addictive

Digital relationships, much like industrial food, play to the reward centers of our brains. A highly engineered food product, such as a Dorito, is not that different than a highly engineered social interaction, such as a Facebook "like".

In a Harvard University study titled “Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding” researchers discovered that “Self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area. Moreover, individuals were willing to forgo money to disclose about the self.” (1)

In other words, What this means is that while talking about yourself is good, talking about yourself to other people who then share your thoughts with even more people, is much better. The reward is magnified.

But, does reward necessarily lead to addiction?

According to Howard Markel, a physician and a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, and the author of “An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine”, “Just about any deeply pleasurable activity — sex, eating, Internet use — has the potential to become addictive and destructive.”

Compared to other forms of addiction, a hit of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram might seem fairly innocuous, but there's more to this story.

Digital relationships provide empty social calories

In a study published in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior, researchers examined the hormonal responses of female children who instant messaged their mothers after undergoing a stressor. (in this case, the stressor was a difficult exam), they discovered that unlike interacting with their mothers in person or over the phone, girls who instant messaged did not release oxytocin; instead, these participants also showed levels of salivary cortisol as high as control subjects who did not interact with their parents at all. (2)

What's even worse is that empty social calories also have the tendency to disrupt real world interaction.

In a set of studies by Andrew K. Prizbilski and Netta Weinstein of the University of Essex it was found that simply having a phone in a room degraded intimate social interactions between two people. The researchers hypothesized that this effect may be the result of being distracted or, in their own words, predispose individuals to "thinking of other people and events outside their immediate social context."

The take home message here is that face to face social interaction stimulates a suite of physiological responses that are not present in purely digital interaction and that. While a phone call my serve as a suitable proxy, texting does not. We might then predict that, over time, the low "nutrient" density of this sort of social interaction would exert chronic effects. Not obesity, diabetes, or other disorders of metabolic function, but rather disorders in our psychological and emotional systems.

When Facebook replaces "face to face", we find ourselves "Alone Together"

To quote from the book "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other" by Sherry Turkle, MIT Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society:

"We are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face. We are offered robots and a whole world of machine-mediated relationships on networked devices. As we instant-message, e-mail, text, and Twitter, technology redraws the boundaries between intimacy and solitude. We talk of getting “rid” of our e-mails, as though these notes are so much excess baggage. Teenagers avoid making telephone calls, fearful that they “reveal too much.” They would rather text than talk.

Adults, too, choose keyboards over the human voice. It is more efficient, they say. Things that happen in “real time” take too much time. Tethered to technology, we are shaken when that world “unplugged” does not signify, does not satisfy. After an evening of avatar-to avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances.

Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?”

What happens next?

To start, turn off your phone and take a look around you. Are you sitting at a table full of people? Are you next to your spouse or partner? Are you in a crowd full of strangers? Start a revolution by starting a conversation.

The digitization of our social networks may be appealing, but for all of the utility provided by this new era of technology, there is still nothing more exciting, more compelling, more unpredictable, more challenging, and ultimately more fulfilling than finding connection in real world.

The Four Step Social Media Detox

  • Level 1 - Disable "push notifications" for social media on your phone

  • Level 2 - Delete social media apps from your phone

  • Level 3 - Turn off your phone

  • Level 4 - Leave your phone somewhere far away

Want to learn more?

You can listen to the full audio of my AHS 2012 Presentation "Processed Food and Processed Friends: Is Facebook a Neolithic Agent of Disease?" in the YouTube window below.

You can also follow along with the slides from my AHS 2013 presentation "Processed Foods and Processed Friends - Is Facebook a Neolithic Agent of Disease" HERE


1. Diana I. Tamir, Jason P. Mitchell “Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding” Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138)

2. Leslie J. Seltzer Ashley R. Prososki , Toni E. Ziegler, Seth D. Pollak “Instant messages vs. speech: hormones and why we still need to hear each other” Evolution & Human Behavior Volume 33, Issue 1 , Pages 42-45, January 2012

3. A Przybylski, N Weinstein “Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships May 2013 vol. 30 no. 3237-246
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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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  1. Excellent read! You're really starting to see this more and more, especially the addiction to "instant gratification" People get addicted to that "ping" every time you get a Like or tweet... it's just as addictive as anything else yet provides very little value to your life.

    I'd rather have 10 high quality friends in real life than 200 low-quality Facebook friends I barely know.

  2. Social networks are uniquely useful for one thing: keeping track of a wide variety of people with little effort. Their usefulness goes way down once you get past that initial benefit.

    I'm amazed how many people there are who are afraid to deal with anything face to face and I think a large part of it is due to constantly interacting with people through a keyboard. Not. The. Same.