I have deleted and redownloaded apps like Instagram and Twitter too many times to count. I have frequently heard friends and colleagues say they are “taking a break from social media.” Most people seem to understand why and what that means. But why is it normal, and why do we accept this without questioning it? If we are all in agreement that it can take a toll on our mental health, to the point of needing the app physically off of our phones, why do we subject ourselves to it?
There is ample science saying that we shouldn’t. Countless studies have shown that social media is changing our brains, literally altering our minds and, therefore, how we reason, make judgements and function. The internet and media are changing our cognition. The power that apps like Instagram and Facebook have is so immense that it could be a weapon.
Yet, there are several reasons why we do engage in social media. An article titled “The Psychology of Social Sharing” outlined different tiers of posting motivations. These incentives for sharing content include physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Receiving feedback from posts online can fill each of these needs, and it is that reward that we seek over and over again.
Sometimes, the reason we use social media is less about us and more about its addicting aspects. According to a study on how the brain may be changing our cognition, leading technology companies have been suspected of intentionally capitalizing on the addictive potential of social media, by studying, testing and refining the aspects of their platforms that grab attention in order to promote extremely high levels of engagement.
“Furthermore, even when not using the Internet for any specific purpose, smartphones have introduced widespread and habitual ‘checking’ behaviours, characterized by quick but frequent inspections of the device for incoming information from news, social media, or personal contacts,” the researchers reported. “These habits are thought to be the result of behavioural reinforcement from ‘information rewards’ that are received immediately on checking the device, potentially engaging the cortico‐striatal dopaminergic system due to their readily available nature. The variable‐ratio reinforcement schedule inherent to device checking may further perpetuate these compulsive behaviours.”
Alerts and notifications sounded off by our devices are addicting in and of themselves. Studies on how social media affects the brain have found that positive interactions, like on an Instagram post, trigger the same chemical reaction produced by street drugs and gambling. Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes discovered that a social media notification causes the brain to send dopamine, a chemical messenger associated with food, sex, exercise, drugs and gambling, along its reward pathway resulting in a feeling of pleasure.
This reward is so powerful, immediate and easily accessible — a simple thumb tap — that the brain rewires itself, making the user crave likes, retweets and other forms of online praise. According to a video by Mitchell Moffit posted on TED-Ed, brain scans of people addicted to social media mirror those of people addicted to drugs; both show clear changes in regions of the brain controlling emotions, attention and decision making.
Even simple online interactions through the smartphone’s touch screen have been shown to cause sustained neurocognitive alterations due to neural changes in cortical regions associated with sensory and motor processing of the hand and thumb. Furthermore, high levels of Internet usage and heavy media multi‐tasking are associated with a decrease in grey matter in prefrontal regions associated with maintaining goals despite present distraction.
Short-term firing of dopaminergic pathways can cause long-term effects in brain chemistry. Several studies have found evidence suggesting a link between social media usage and depression. Cyberpsychologist Igor Pantic stated that prolonged use of social networking sites may be related to signs and symptoms of depression. Part of this lies in the fact that as people compare their lives to those of others, they will find their mental health continues to deteriorate.
A study done at the University of Pennsylvania tracked participants’ social media time via iPhone battery usage screenshots. Simultaneously, participants completed surveys about their mood and well-being. After three weeks, the people who limited social media said that they felt less depressed and lonely than people who had no social media limits.
Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study,” Psychologist Melissa Hunt stated.
Hunt theorizes that the reason for feeling depressed after binging social media is due to comparison. Seeing a person’s ideal life in perfectly edited photos makes it easy to believe that they are happier and living better than you are.
Many studies have found that social media influences attention spans due to the constantly changing stream of online information requiring our divided attention across multiple media sources. It also affects memory processes as sources of online information begin to alter the way we retrieve, store and even value knowledge. A third way social media alters the brain is social cognition; the ability for online social settings to mimic and evoke real‐world social processes creates a new dynamic between the Internet and our social lives, like our sense of self.
Personally, I rarely use Instagram. Unless someone sends me a direct message, I don’t click on the app. I have no desire to scroll through pictures of other people’s lives as I sit on my phone and compare myself to them or make judgements. It feels unhealthy to me, and I don’t like it. It also feels fake and shallow. I would much rather see how someone is in real life than see a picture they curated and edited and wanted me to see. The word I think of is inauthentic.
Also, the amount of information we know and the speed with which we can know it is not normal. It is too easy to look someone up and see their entire life — at least the version they want you to see — and find out all kinds of things about them. I don’t think this is a good thing; people who have never met me have opinions about me based on photos, posts and information found online, and I find that unsettling.
If you are interested in social media and how it is affecting us and will continue to affect us, I highly recommend movies like “The Social Network” or “The Social Dilemma.” Media is making history, more than we could imagine, and we are the guinea pigs living through an age becoming more and more digital.
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