Social media is changing the world. It’s changing the way we communicate, the way we consume information, the way we travel, and even the way we eat. Not only does it influence our daily lives, it also changes the very structure and function of our brains.
Social media is affecting the way our brains work. Every second we’re on social media, it changes the way we think, feel, and act. The changes are not all bad, though some of them seem to be. Whether you’re here to learn more about yourself, or find new approaches to build your brand, here are 9 ways social media is changing your brain. This will include the thoughts, emotions, and actions, both online and offline, which social media impacts.
Makes your brain a slave to it
5-10% of internet users say they can’t control their internet usage. Scientists compare it to drug addiction because the effects on the brain are very similar. Certainly, the areas of the brain involved are the same too. Impairment in the brain areas associated with drug dependence is seen in the brains of heavy social media users. There is degradation of white matter in the regions that control emotional processing, attention, and decision-making.
This psychological addiction happens because of the instant gratification people find on social media. This rewires our brain and its expectations, making us seek experiences (i.e. social media stimulation) that provide immediate pleasure in the same way that we chase the high we get from drugs.
This neurological craving intensifies as we log off after an online socialization, which is why it’s often so hard to do.
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Impairs your brain’s multi-tasking ability
Studies show that humans can’t really multi-task. We can’t pay attention to two or more tasks at the same time, but we can switch our focus from one activity to the next with astonishing speed.
Enter social media and all the posts that are competing for our attention. From that cat video your aunt shared, to the vacation photos your friend posted, they’re all forcing your brain to shift attention from one to the next in rapid speed.
All that focus-switching, when coupled with multi-platform and multi-screen use at one time, is found to reduce your ability to quickly switch your focus from one task to another. It makes you less able to filter out distractions and the residual effect, it seems, is a weakened ability to commit information to memory.
This could result in poor memory
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Improves your memory
On the other hand, contrary to the previous point, there are also studies that show social media positively affects our gray matter — the part responsible for memory.
These studies posit that our brains adapt to all the influx of information. The more information your brain receives, the more your brain works hard to keep up, and the more it grows stronger like a muscle being exercised. However, when people multitasked and used several social sites at the same time, a negative effect was found: memory ability was diminished.
A study by The Royal Society found that the number of Facebook friends you have directly correlate with the amount of gray matter you have. While the results need further study, it suggests that the more updates from multiple sources your brain has to process, the stronger your memory gets. It’s not clear whether more followers leads to more gray matter or if more gray matter leads to more followers, but there does seem to be a relationship there.
Time to rack up more followers.
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People want to be friends with the popular people. It’s human nature and it’s called the need for a sense of identity. People will often draw their identity from friends and associations, and social media makes this easier than ever.
Makes your brain interpret stimuli as incoming texts
It’s interesting how our brains sometimes interpret skin itches, muscle spasms, and even movements of clothes, as vibrations from an incoming text or call. This phenomenon is called the Phantom Vibration Syndrome and, in one study, nine out of ten undergraduates were found to suffer from it.
If you sometimes think your phone is vibrating when it isn’t, now you know you aren’t losing your marbles. Or at least you’re not alone.
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Makes you a “conversational narcissist”
Another study into the virtual world study shows that social media triggers the production of dopamine in our brain. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical involved in our brain’s reward system.
It turns out this neural system in our brain is more active when we are talking about ourselves than when we are listening to or reading about others. These reward neural structures are associated with pleasure, motivation, and love. They become even more stimulated when you have an audience.
So, when you talk about yourself, your brain rewards you and makes you want to keep doing more of the same. That’s how you can end up talking more and more about yourself, or find that your photo roll is increasingly taken over by selfies.
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Affects the neural mechanism that keeps love alive
Studies show that marriages that start online tend to be successful. Relationships that begin on the internet have higher statistical odds of success than traditional relationships as well.
The regions of our brain rich with dopamine — the same neurotransmitter that is most abundant in our brains when we are rewarded on social media — come alive when we’re in love and thinking about the person we love.
It seems that romantic love is kept alive by these regions in our brain and that these structures are responsible for motivating us to pursue happiness.
Damages your ability to sleep
We’ve all heard how using gadgets before bedtime makes it difficult to fall asleep. Blue lights from screens of all kinds inhibit the production of the hormone melatonin, which aids sleep. The sleep center in our brain is easily influenced by psychological factors but also by physical factors like light and darkness.
Now, a newer study says sleep problems can lead to more serious conditions later in life, like Alzheimer’s Disease. It seems the sleep mechanisms in our brains, even though they adapt to our sleep requirements as we age, are quite fragile and that any damage may lead to sleep disorders, from excessive sleeping to difficulty sleeping, among others.
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Impacts neurological responses to social influence
Yet another study shows that activities in our striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex are moderated by social influence. These parts of the brain are involved in the processing of rewards and encoding a subjective value of behavior and opinion of others.
It is believed that exposure to social media makes “encoding of subjective values” more difficult. Because the Bandwagon Effect is present during the opinion formation process of our brain, and influences are certainly present in social media, the same sofa may differ in value for us depending on how many people are looking to buy it.
The changes in the way we make real-world decisions may have a long-term effect, too. Indeed, as long as social media makes it possible for us to see what others are buying, spending money on, and even who we are following, we may continue to see this happening. The same goes for any idea or news we hear about on social media.
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Harms Your Self-esteem
Regular use of social media can result in low self-esteem. However, it seems self-esteem is no longer just a concept in psychology that we can sweep under the rug. When you’re feeling insecure, your brain actually shows it.
A neurological study from a few years back shows how the connection between the parts of the brain that deal with self-knowledge and the parts handling reward can predict self-esteem levels. The findings show that people with high self-esteem have an active and strong frontostriatal pathway in the brain.
This is where self-esteem lives in your brain
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This connective pathway in your brain gets weaker with heavy use of social media, unfortunately. Perhaps think about that the next time you’re about to open Facebook or Twitter.
Are We Better or Worse Off with Social Media?
Every human has an amazing brain. It has a mind-blowing capacity to adapt and accommodate changes in the environment. Whether the harmful changes brought about by social media will result in a more functional brain in the long-term, no one knows. Whether we’re better or worse off with social media overall, only time will tell. It’s more likely that there are a variety of positive and negative effects, and the solution lies in finding the right amount of social media for you.
So, use social media, but not too much. Strike a perfect balance in everything you do online and find time to enjoy things outside of social media. After all, it’s only when you have a balanced lifestyle will you truly feel happy.