Generation Notification: Why Our Brains Literally Love Notifications

If we weren’t already called Generation-Y, we’d be called Generation Notification.

We love it, that pesky little orange or blue (1) that appears at the top of our computers and iPhones and tells us that somebody wants to interact with us: to leave us a comment, to like one of our photos, to retweet us, to write on our walls.

Notifications heighten our self-worth, are how we know someone is listening to us and caring about what we have to say.

They’re the other half of a conversation. You put an idea out there, and someone responds to it. You post a vacation photo; someone comments on it. You write a status update; someone likes it. Being ignored in a conversation in real life sucks, and being ignored online sucks just the same.

How bad does it feel to put up a selfie and get no likes? To post a funny video and get no LOLs? To write a status and get no response? To realize that your contribution to the social media conversation wasn’t worthy of an answer? Notifications tell us that it was important, that we are important.

We truly crave that validation. Ford’s 2014 consumer survey reports that 62 percent of adults felt better about themselves after getting positive reactions to what they shared on social media. That’s a huge percentage.

But a notification doesn’t always indicate a positive answer; it simply indicates an answer. Notifications can represent a wide range of types of responses — and then, within that response, a wide range of emotions. What if the notification is something negative? Is it worse to get a negative response, or no response at all?

“No one likes being ignored or unseen,” says my friend Sam, who says getting no response is definitely worse. “At least with a negative comment, you’re still being recognized.”

“Think about when you don’t get a response to a text right away,” she continued. “You feel rejected. Same thing with a post on social media.”

It makes sense: We simply want to be recognized. And a negative response can actually create similar opportunities for seeking that recognition. Another friend, Brad, said that he thinks a negative response feels worse, but only if it’s a valid complaint.

If the negative response is “dumb” — in other words, maybe it’s not a valid complaint — it could be an opportunity to engage in a debate, to boast your opinion and try to prove that you’re right. Which everyone loves doing.

It’s all about the dopamine, the chemical associated with reward and motivation response in the brain, that emerges when we receive a Facebook notification.

Every notification is a possible interaction opportunity, so every time we cater to that little (1), we get a hit of dopamine, which recharges our “addictive compulsion” to social media.

And we can’t help but to feed into this compulsion. In fact, a disorder called Internet addiction disorder (IAD) actually exists, apparently.

It’s even been included in the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-V), though whether or not it should is another question entirely. The term was first proposed as a hoax in 1995 by Ivan Goldberg, M.D., and now it’s become a real thing.

Notifications are truly an integral part of the social media experience — but what happens when you ignore one? While answering a notification increases our dopamine, paying no attention to one gives us another kind of power.

In real life, it’s far more difficult not to reply when faced with an uncomfortable question or comment in a conversation. On social media, however, we don’t have to reply. Receiving a notification gives us the power to disregard it, which adds on to how in-demand we already feel when we receive one.

Notifications simultaneously make us feel like we have tons of friends who care about what we have to say and help with our awkwardness in anxiety-inducing situations.

And yet, there can’t be anything more anxiety-inducing than giving a notification to someone when you didn’t mean to — namely, giving an accidental “like.”

What’s worse than giving your ex the satisfaction of knowing you were stalking him late at night? Or, even worse, giving your ex’s current girlfriend that satisfaction? Or the random chick you’ve never spoken to? These shots of dopamine are undeserved.

Everyone deals with notifications differently. Personally, I turn my push notifications off on my iPhone so I don’t get them individually as they come in. Instead, I like to log into my apps periodically and see a cluster of notifications waiting to be opened all at once.

You think you feel excited over the (1)? Try letting them pile up to (10). Your life will change.

(I can’t tell if I’m being satirical. I don’t think I am. Just try it.)

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Alexia LaFata

Digital Editor