Elon Musk is talking about AI-driven ‘Dopamine trap’ on social media; Here’s how it impacts children

Doctors dealing with technology addiction in children agree with Elon Musk's warning that AI algorithms are designed to maximise user engagement by manipulating dopamine levels.

ByChetana Belagere

Published May 29, 2024 | 7:00 AMUpdatedMay 29, 2024 | 7:00 AM

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Scrolling through Instagram, 13-year-old Poorvi from Bengaluru found herself lost in a never-ending stream of perfectly curated photos and reels. Each swipe brought a new burst of excitement, a dopamine hit that kept her glued to her screen for hours.

Little did Poorvi’s parents know, that the sophisticated AI algorithms behind Instagram were meticulously designed to maximize her engagement, keeping her hooked and craving for more.

The AI-driven Dopamine trap

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and owner of the social media platform X (formerly Twitter), has recently spoken out about the dangers of these AI-driven algorithms, particularly their impact on children.

Speaking at the VivaTech fair in Paris, Musk highlighted the manipulative nature of these algorithms. “I would urge parents to limit the amount of social media that children can see because they’re being programmed by a dopamine-maximising AI,” Musk warned​.

He warned about the AI algorithms that are designed to maximise user engagement by manipulating dopamine levels. Musk emphasised that these algorithms can lead to addictive behaviors, particularly in children, and urged parents to limit their children’s exposure to social media platforms.

Musk highlighted the fierce competition among social media platforms to capture users’ attention, which he believes is detrimental to young minds.

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‘AI algorithms keep users engaged’

Agreeing to Elon Musk’s statement, Dr Manoj Sharma, who heads the SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) clinic at NIMHANS and works with technology addiction in children as well as adults, said that these observations by Elon Musk carries weight and can influence parents to discuss healthy use of social media with children during family communication.

He said that Dopamine release is the maintaining factor for compulsive use.

Explaining the science behind this Dr Sharma said, “AI algorithms on social media platforms are designed to maximise user engagement by leveraging the brain’s reward system, particularly through the neurotransmitter dopamine.”

Dr Sharma explained that AI uses vast amount of data to learn users’ preferences, behaviors, and interests.

By presenting content tailored to individual users, AI keeps users engaged and coming back for more, creating a loop of anticipation and reward that releases dopamine.

According to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in 2019, nearly 66 percent of indian children aged 5-11 years have access to the internet, especially through smartphone. This early exposure to AI-driven content raises alarms about the long-term effects on young minds.

Meanwhile, experts add that there is a kind of anticipation and unpredictability of new content which generates curiosity as well making the children to continue being on social media. The dopamine release then enhances the effect, similar to gambling mechanisms.

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Desire for instant gratification and reward

Dr Sharma also explained that adolescents seek instant gratification, acknowledgement and reward constantly and immediately.

Social media aggregators ensure that these needs are served. The likes, comments, and shares act as social rewards. This gives a positive reinforcement of being noticed, stimulating the brain’s reward system. This in turn creates a feedback loop where they seek more engagement to receive more rewards, he explained.

Interestingly, a study by McGill university researchers also argue that the most addictive smartphone functions tap into the human desire for social interaction.

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology done in 2018 argues that pace and scale of hyper-connectivity pushes the brain’s reward system to run on overdrive, which can lead to unhealthy addictions.

Lead author Professor Veissiere said, “In post industrial environments, where foods are abundant and readily available, our cravings for fat and sugar sculpted by distant evolutionary pressures can easily go into insatiable overdrive and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease…”

“The pro-social needs and rewards of smartphone use as a means to connect can similarly be hijacked to produce a manic theatre of hyper-social monitoring,” Veissiere said.

Child psychologists explain this dopamine high leads to increased screen time and addiction-like behaviours.

Speaking to South First Dr Preeti M Galgali, Adolescent Health Specialist, Director at Bengaluru Adolescent Care and Counselling Centre and a paediatrician said that the downside of such addiction is that it gives less time to children to do other activities.

“It is now required to monitor child’s non-screen time. We all know that one cannot escape from presence of screens in children’s lives but the measure of non-screen time is more important now,” she said.

She explained that reduction in physical activity, engaging socially on screen can lead to several non-communicable diseases and eating disorders as children aspire to have bodies they see on screen, eat unhealthily and don’t sleep well.

As part of history taking, Dr Galgali said they ask how children feel after being on social media and interestingly, majority of them say they feel “terrible”. This is because the child begins to feel insecure and incapable as they compare themselves, their looks and abilities with the intelligently created content of AI.

They see continuous reels of the lives of similarly aged children or celebrities, models, influencers etc and regret that their lives, looks and abilities are not similar to theirs, and hence they feel bad, she said.

“Some of my patients who are introverts and those with social anxiety disorder, feel it’s safe to connect on these platforms but that is absolutely dangerous,” Dr Galgali said.

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Setting healthy screen boundaries 

Dr Sharma explained that it is important to set time limit and boundaries but only through negotiation. Screen time must be negotiated with the child and make it a healthy discussion through family communication.

He said, “Majority of the patients do want to discuss but they don’t know how to communicate it to their child. They should discuss in a non-judgemental way. They should take out quality family time to discuss these issues, where all family members must participate.”

Limiting screen time for upto two hours might help, Dr Manoj said. However, there is no research showing that two hours per day is safe.

Instead, experts suggest that children should be encouraged to engage in offline activities such as sports, reading, and their respective hobbies based on their interest for a healthy balance.

Creating an atmosphere where children interact with peers during times other than school can help in child’s desire for social interaction. Children must be educated about the dangers of social media addiction, online safety, importance of online privacy etc in schools and colleges.

Dr Galgali also said that AI is being used for education and engaging children with ADHD and it is benefitting majority of them.

However, over indulgence of neurotypical children in social media or other AI-related softwares might lead to behaviours associated with attention disorders, hyperactivity, less interest in real world, lack of sleep, obesity and memory problems, she added.

Interestingly, Musk has admitted that not restricting his own children’s social media use might have been a mistake.

He noted that platforms like Reddit and YouTube have had a significant influence on them, and he now advocates for greater oversight and moderation of children’s online activities​.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)