Mobile phones are amazing devices – they bring the world to our fingertips. And social media is great for keeping up with what our friends and colleagues are up to. But we’ve all seen situations where the phone has meant lost human interaction; a couple sitting across from each other in a restaurant, barely exchanging a word or a glance as they stare at their phones. A parent ignoring the arm tug from a toddler as their need for attention goes unmet while daddy checks the football scores or mummy scrolls through her Facebook feed.
Attention is a fundamental need for humans. We are social creatures and thrive on being noticed. And the need for attention starts on day one. No other creature on earth is born as helpless as a human baby. An elephant can walk before its first meal, a gazelle can run with the herd the day after it’s born. We’re born “unfinished” for a very good reason. Evolution has meant that humans need to be born at the stage we are, because our heads would be simply too large otherwise. So it’s vital we get the full attention of those who will look after us, or we simply die.
Those early vulnerability circuits are still there when we’re adults. Whenever we feel ignored, stress hormones such as cortisol surge through our system. When we get attention, “happy” chemicals like serotonin flow. This applies to other primates too. Researchers have found that chimpanzees will actually exchange food for the chance to look at photos of the alpha male in their group.
To a certain extent, social media interaction can act as a substitute to direct human interaction. We all feel a little better when our post is “liked” or shared. But there can be a downside. For example, internet trolls do what they do because any kind of attention, even negative, is better than being ignored.
And does an electronic “thumbs up” really fill you with the same sense of joy and wellbeing as a good natter with an old friend? I think we know the answer to that.