What Are the Effects of Social Media on the Brain?

Did you ever stop to ask yourself ‘how does social media affect my behavior and thinking abilities’? In this article, we look at the potential effects of using social media on the brain.

The purpose of this article is to clarify the relationship between social media use and our brains through existing research.

The Effects of Social Media on the Brain

How Social Media Affects Our Brains

Before we dive into the details, take a minute or two to sincerely answer these questions:

  • Do you find yourself frequently distracted when you’re involved in tasks that demand your attention (e.g. writing, research, studying, etc.)?
  • Does the thought of being completely separated from your phone and social media for 24 hours slightly scare you?
  • Do you feel like you’re not in control of your happiness?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you may be using social media too much (or the wrong way).

Read on to find out how research has linked heavy social media use to poor academic performance, lack of productivity, and depression.

Disclaimer

The contents of this article are meant to educate, not attack.

The idea is to spread awareness of the benefits and the drawbacks of social media use so we can collectively get a better grip on this phenomenon that’s taking over our lives and make better decisions online.

In an attempt to not overwhelm you, we will only discuss a few ways in which social media affects the mind. There is much more outside of this that we’ll discuss another time.

Although we’ve based most of this information on studies, you should keep in mind that more research and further studies need to be done, especially on the long-term use of social media, to come to any solid conclusions.

And it is for that reason that some parts of this article will refer to the effect on the brain, while others will only reflect on the effects on the mind (we’re not neuroscientists to discuss any physical changes to the brain).

The Positive Effects of Social Media on the Mind

The Positive Effects of Social Media on the Mind

How does social media benefit our minds? Studies have shown positive effects on mental well-being and social behaviors.

Let’s have a look at some of them.

1. Connection & Belonging

Social media platforms help people connect and discuss ideas with like-minded peers, helping build the emotional (and mental) support that some people may be struggling to find elsewhere [1].

However, it is worth noting that this positive effect has always been (and still is) offered on websites, online forums, discussion boards, and similar platforms.

2. Expansion of Mindsets

The variety of ideas available on social media from different mindsets helps introduce people to diverse topics and expand their minds and views [2].

Although at the same time, the prevalence of trends, repurposed content, and social media norms and practices such as the social media influencer phenomenon can also inhibit creativity and independent thinking.

3. Switching Between Tasks

Social media and media multitasking (engaging in multiple forms of media at the same time) might just be helping people switch between tasks faster [3].

According to two experiments conducted before 2014, heavy media multitaskers had a higher capability of switching between two tasks simultaneously [4].

It is crucial to understand, though, that the results of the two experiments did not indicate any increase in the participants’ ability to process the tasks.

The Negative Effects of Social Media on the Mind

The Negative Effects of Social Media on the Brain

Now, let’s look at some of the negative effects of social media use.

1. Inability to Delay Gratification

Perhaps one of the most crucial findings that are hazardous to mental wellbeing is social media’s effect on delayed gratification [5], [6].

Neuroscientists found that social media platforms features such as “likes”, “follows”, and even comments and app notifications induce dopamine [7].

Dopamine, also known as “the happy hormone”, is a natural chemical that the brain produces and releases into the nervous system. It plays a big role in how we feel pleasure.

And it affects many parts of our behavior and physical functions, such as learning, motivation, sleep, mood, and attention [8].

What happens when we get ‘likes’

Researchers found that every time we receive a like, a comment, or get a notification, our brains’ dopamine receptors fire off. The brain tells us “this feels good” [9].

And so, naturally, we want to feel good more often.

Therefore, we post more often and spend more time on these platforms thinking that they’re bringing us happiness.

But similar to drug abuse and gambling, over time, this repetitive behavior of seeking short-term feel-good rewards can lead to dependence and addiction.

Ultimately, we get accustomed to this short-term happiness that we lose sight of the bigger picture and neglect -or even forget- to feel long-term happiness.

2. Hinders Analytical Thinking

How often do you ask Google or Siri for answers?

While a blessing, having access to an unlimited pool of knowledge at our fingertips could also be a curse.

In investigating the consequences of having all of this information on our smartphones, researchers found that increased Smartphone use is associated with lower analytical thinking [10].

And that’s probably because we offload a lot of our thinking to our phones and other people on the Internet [11].

Think about it: when was the last time you’ve memorized a phone number?

We lost that ability because we stopped practicing it.

Now, imagine the number of other tasks we’ve offloaded onto our smartphones: math, job-seeking, relationship advice, opinions, perspectives, writing, and more.

In fact, across the three studies conducted by researchers, they’ve found that those who think more intuitively and less analytically when given reasoning problems were more likely to rely on their Smartphones [12].

3. Negatively Affects Mental Health

From toxic comparisons and self-doubt to anxiety, depression, and lack of self-esteem. Studies continue to find direct and indirect correlations between mental disorders and prolonged (or incorrect) social media use [13], [14].

What’s more alarming is that it often affects people subconsciously.

So, many people fail to even recognize how detrimental social media is to their health until it’s too late.

And that’s if they’ve recognized it at all.

4. Impedes Productivity

Do you use your phone to work? Maybe it’s time to consider muting the notifications while you do.

According to studies, in-phone interruptions (notifications) cause up to four times delay in completing the primary task [15].

So, if you’re using your phone to write, for example, and you receive a message notification, your writing might be delayed by four times more as a result of the interruption.

Additionally, studies have found that when performing attention-demanding tasks, such as thinking and writing, phone notifications appeared to cause just as much disruption in performance as active phone use [16].

That means that even if your phone is just sitting there doing nothing, receiving a message notification could cause your brain just as much disruption as it would if you were using it.

In other words, silence and bury your phone when you work.

And if you want your employee/contractor to do a good job stop harassing him/her while they’re working.


Conclusion

Smartphones and social media (as we know them now) are relatively new phenomena.

And just like most things in life, social media has its positive and negative effects.

Humans have yet to witness, let alone study, a single person who was born a digital native and lived through a full life cycle.

Therefore, we simply do not possess enough data to make us draw solid conclusions about the effects of social media on the brain.

However, researchers have been continuously taking the time to study social media use and its effects on the brain and on our cognitive abilities.

And although not conclusive, these studies have found a correlation between heavy social media use and cognitive and mental health disorders.

Minimizing the Risks of Social Media on the Brain

Minimizing the Negative Effects of Social Media

The first step to minimizing any harm caused by social media is to acknowledge that smart devices and social media are still new phenomena that we haven’t fully studied or understood yet.

They are powerful and they have a strong impact on people and society as a whole.

And to that end, we should be more mindful of our use of social media:

  1. We should post and interact more consciously.
  2. Unfollow accounts that distress us or don’t benefit us.
  3. Limit our daily time spent on social media.
  4. Be mindful of how different posts affect us.
  5. Stop searching for content that might be self-destructive.
  6. Avoid engaging in hateful and useless discussions.
  7. Behave the same way we would in the real world.
  8. Learn to detach from our smartphones and social media.
  9. Think independently and draw our own conclusions.
  10. Learn through better online sources.

Further Reading


References

  1. https://online.king.edu/news/psychology-of-social-media/
  2. https://paintedbrain.org/editorial/7-ways-social-media-can-benefit-mental-health-2/
  3. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-012-0245-7
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23398256/
  5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/real-happiness-in-digital-world/202105/delayed-gratification-in-the-digital-age
  6. https://www.bucknell.edu/news/instant-gratification-its-dark-side
  7. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-016-1011-z
  8. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine
  9. https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/13/7/699/5048941
  10. https://www.contentwatch.com/blog/does-social-media-hinder-analytical-thinking/
  11. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsif.2013.1211
  12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2015.02.029
  13. https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2014.33.8.701
  14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30711871/
  15. https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/2371574.2371617
  16. https://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2015-28923-001