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How Social Media Changes Your Brain (and What to Do About It)

✎ Written by: Emma Loker

✓ Fact-checked by: Kaija Sander, Ph.D.


Has time ever slipped away from you while you’re scrolling through social media? Before you know it, you’ve spent 2 hours watching videos on TikTok or learning an Instagram influencer’s daily eating habits.


In our hyper-connected world, these scenarios are all too familiar. According to certain recent statistics, we spend approximately 143 minutes per day on social media. That’s over two hours spent scrolling. 


But is this significant? Evidence increasingly indicates that it is. In fact, research finds that social media not only affects our mental health but also causes long-lasting changes to our brains


So, what exactly happens to our brains on social media? And how do we take back control over our digital lives? 


In this article, we’ll break down the relationship between social media and the brain and explore:


Social Media and the Brain

One of the reasons why social media can have powerful effects on our brains is that our brains change and adapt based on our experiences in a process called neuroplasticity. 


In other words, we have many nerve cells in our brains, which use electrical and chemical signals to send information throughout our body, including from one brain region to another. 


For example, if we feel hot, we would identify this through the receptors on the outer layers of our skin. They would then send signals to our brain so that it knows our body is hot, motivating us to take off our sweaters. 


This process forms a neural pathway in our brain that becomes stronger and more efficient over time. So, by the time we’re adults, we know almost immediately to take a layer of clothing off when we’re feeling hot. 


In this way, our brain is like any other muscle - when we have new experiences and learn new things, our brain forms connections between nerve cells, either strengthening existing pathways or creating new ones. 


When considering the relationship between social media and the brain, it all comes down to how our nerve cells respond to the stimulation we get. 


For example, social media platforms trigger specific patterns of signals through the nerves in our eyes to our brains. Over time, the stimulation from social media causes changes to the nerve pathways and alters the structure of our brains. However, the effects extend beyond just visual input. 


Social media influences various aspects of our brain function, including how we feel about ourselves, our cognitive processes, our feelings of connectedness, and our reward systems.  


4 Ways Social Media Affects Our Brains

 1. Affects Our Concentration


Social media often diverts our attention away from a task without us even realizing it. Think back to the last time you were doing something and a notification pinged on your phone.


By taking our attention away from the task at hand, social media forces us to multitask. So, instead of focusing on a single task, our brain tries to split its resources in two - this requires a lot more thinking power. 


And while more research is needed on why social media is more distracting than a car alarm sounding outside your window, or noises within your house, certain researchers suggest that the number of benefits it offers us - checking in on friends, learning about social norms, and expressing ourselves - makes it particularly all the more distracting.


As these kinds of distractions continue to happen, our brain function may change. Namely, our right prefrontal brain activity may increase, as this part of the brain is involved in attention. 


These changes may make it more difficult to focus on just one task at a time without getting distracted, which could decrease our performance. 

2. Alters Our Memory System


Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to access information online - all information is just a Google search or social media search away. Unfortunately, this easy access to information is impacting our brains.


A meta-analysis of four studies found that when we have better access to information (i.e., through our mobile phones) we are more likely to remember where the information came from, not the content of the information. 


As a result, we become progressively more dependent on searching social media or Google to find answers, but more efficient at knowing where to look. 

3. Changes Our Internal Social Structures

Researchers found that online networks of social media friends tend to activate brain regions involved in memory and face recognition, while real-life social networks stimulate the areas of the brain involved in deep, personal relationships and familiarity


These findings suggest that social media interactions engage distinct neural pathways compared to face-to-face interactions. 


For instance, while browsing through our social media feeds, we may rely more on memory and recognition processes to navigate through our long list of acquaintances. 


On the other hand, engaging in meaningful conversations or shared experiences in real life may activate brain regions associated with empathy, emotional bonding, and social understanding. 


While social media networks activate different brain regions than real-life interactions, it’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily imply a fundamental alteration of the brain. 


Instead, it highlights how adaptive our brains can be when responding to different social stimuli. 


However, prolonged and frequent engagement with online social networks may influence how we prioritize and perceive relationships, potentially shaping our social cognition over time.  

4. Rewires Our Reward System

Finally, social media works in a similar way to gambling or taking recreational drugs. It triggers the release of dopamine, a hormone that’s responsible for making us feel satisfied, pleased, and motivated. But why is this?


Research found that we get a chemical reward from sharing our experiences with others, and social media gives us a platform to share our experiences more often. 


In fact, one study found that 80% of users on a social media platform shared information about themselves compared to around 30 - 40% during in-person interactions. So, we naturally find social media more rewarding, especially when we have more of an audience. 


The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health

The research looking into how social media affects our mental health has only sprung up in recent years. However, more and more evidence is surfacing about the negative effects of social media on mental health, especially for children and teens. 


On one hand, social media platforms offer opportunities for peer support, community engagement, and connection, which can improve our sense of belonging and self-esteem


Online communities provide spaces for chatting about everyday challenges, adverse life events, and discussing health conditions, which can reduce stigma and increase our sense of feeling emotionally supported. 


On the other hand, there are certainly potential risks linked to excessive social media use. Experts have particular concerns about body image dissatisfaction, cyberbullying, addiction, and the possible negative mood effects of social media overuse


Excessive social media usage has been linked to increased loneliness, as well as fear of missing out, and a general decrease in wellbeing and life satisfaction. What’s more, people at risk of social media addiction tend to report more symptoms of depression and lower self-esteem.


So, while social media can provide valuable resources for our psychological well-being, it’s important to consider the potential risks of using it in excess. 


Step-by-Step Guide to Preserving Our Focus While Using Social Media

It’s easy to slip into the pit of social media and find yourself in a social media mental health conundrum. If you find it challenging to maintain your focus while using social media, try these four simple steps: 

1.Choose Single Tasking Over Multitasking

When we spend long periods of time on social media, our attentional systems are being overused. Our attentional systems have a limited capacity, so when we overwork these, our brains are working at reduced capacity. 

2. Take Lots of Breaks

Try to take lots of breaks when we’re browsing social media or looking for information online. Breaks give our attentional system time to recover and the information we’ve read can better be transferred into our memory, meaning that our brain has to store less information at any one time. 

3. Set a Limit on Our Social Media Use

We can do this by downloading an app that locks your social media after a specific time or using the settings on our phone to notify us when we’ve spent a certain amount of time on our phone. 

4. Listen to podcasts instead

Taking in visual stimuli is far more demanding on our attention systems than auditory stimuli, so we can use this to our advantage to maximize our brain capacity while taking in information. 

The Final Verdict on Social Media and the Brain

As quickly as a flash, social media has begun to consume not only our time, but our attention spans. But more than this - it has begun to affect our brains and mental health. From hyper-triggered reward systems to altered memory systems, social media’s effects are extreme.


Yet, when we become aware of the relationship between social media and our brains, we can start to change our habits. By focusing on single-tasking and by setting limits on our social media use, we can claw back control over our digital habits, one mindful step at a time. 



Myndlift provides a personalized expert-guided brain training program that can help you elevate your wellbeing by improving your sleep quality, focus, calm, and self-control over mood. Take this 10-second quiz to check if you’re eligible to kick-start your journey for better brain health.



 


About the author:


Emma is a practicing trainee Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist studying at the University of Cambridge and a psychology writer with years of experience. She achieved a 1st Class Honors Degree in Psychology from Aston University in Birmingham.



About the reviewer:


Kaija Sander is a cognitive neuroscientist and scientific consultant for Myndlift. She holds a BSc in Biomedical Science with a specialization in Neuroscience and Mental Health from Imperial College London and a PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University. Her doctoral research focused on brain connectivity relating to second language learning success. She is passionate about the broader applications of science to have a positive impact on people’s lives.


 

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