The Perilous Path Of Addiction: From Coca-Cola To Social Media

Steve Rosenbaum
3 min readFeb 13, 2024

Coca-Cola was invented in 1885 by John Pemberton, a pharmacist from Atlanta, Georgia, who made the original formula in his backyard. Pemberton’s recipe contained cocaine in the form of an extract of the coca leaf, which inspired the “Coca” part of the beverage’s name.

When Coca-Cola was invented, cocaine was legal, and people thought it was safe to use in small amounts. By 1902 there were an estimated 200,000 cocaine addicts in the United States, and by 1907, U.S. coca leaf imports were three times their 1900 levels. Hundreds of early Hollywood silent films depicted scenes of drug use and trafficking.

In 1914, the Harrison Narcotic Act outlawed cocaine in the United States, and usage declined throughout the 1940s through the 1960s.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.

According to a new Harvard University study, social media is addictive both physically and psychologically. Self-disclosure on social networking sites lights up the same part of the brain that also ignites when taking an addictive substance. The reward area in the brain and its chemical messenger pathways affect decisions and sensations.

Too many young consumers “can’t put it down,” David Greenfield, a psychologist and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, told The New York Times. “The internet is a giant hypodermic, and the content, including social media like Meta, are the psychoactive drugs.”

When someone experiences something rewarding or uses an addictive substance, neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated and dopamine levels rise. Therefore, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement.

A Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Study reported that social media platforms Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, X (formerly Twitter), and YouTube collectively derived nearly $11 billion in advertising revenue from U.S.-based users younger than 18 in 2022.

The American Journal of Psychiatry reports: “Although not included in DSM-5, Internet addiction is thought to share some key traits with substance use disorder, such as tolerance, withdrawal, and negative repercussions. Today, Internet addiction is viewed as a spectrum of online addictions, and compulsive Facebook use falls within that spectrum.”

“There is now a great deal of evidence that social media is a substantial cause, not just a tiny correlate, of depression and anxiety, and therefore of behaviors related to depression and anxiety, including self-harm and suicide,” Jon Haidt wrote recently in his substack, After Babel, where he’s publishing essays on the topic that will also come out in the form of a book, “The Anxious Generation,” set for publication March 25.

Although not technically listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) as an official disorder, social media addiction is recognized by mental health professionals and researchers as a type of behavioral addiction, similar to gambling or shopping addiction.

A recent study explored broadening the definition to “internet addiction.” “As screens have been relied upon for essential purposes including education, communication, and social connectedness, use has inevitably risen, and youth previously balancing media use and other activities may find themselves struggling. While our knowledge has grown substantially in this area, there are still questions that need to be answered before we can effectively treat this modern facet of adolescent health,” said the study. But the phrase “modern facet of adolescent health” is troubling, as it puts no responsibility on the platform owners.

But times change, and there’s a growing voice of medical experts and neuroscientists who are ready to label social media addictive.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, in a groundbreaking report issued last spring, urged technology companies and lawmakers to take “immediate action” by writing policies to protect young people from “addictive apps and extreme and inappropriate content” on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat. “Current guidelines on social media use have been shaped by media platforms and are inadequate,” he said.

The point about Coca-Cola here is that removing the addictive substances from the soft drink didn’t kill the company or the brand. Social media platforms may need to acknowledge the behaviors in their code that are addictive, and it may take the FDA to change their behaviors.