On the Mind: Your Brain on Social Media

Science Features Neuroscience
On the Mind: Your Brain on Social Media

This column, On the Mind, is a series about the latest in cognitive science and neuroscience-related research that applies to our everyday lives. This biweekly series is for those interested in cutting-edge findings about the practical side of habits, memories, multitasking and the human-brain interface. What are the recent studies, and what is the context? See what science says and how you can apply it to your life.


Studies Say

In the past few years, research has begun to tell us just how awful social media is for our brains. It can lower our self-control, which can boost impulse spending and food cravings. It can make us more open to peer pressure. It seems to hurt our self-esteem and make us feel lonely, frustrated and angry when comparing ourselves with others. And the online chat functions can seriously mess up our perceptions of everyday in-person interactions.

But now it seems even worse. The end of 2016 unleashed a vitriol of social media craze and emotion that has only gained momentum. As we continue posting for and against each day’s new chaos surrounding President Donald Trump’s administration, we’re being sucked into a mire of roller coaster emotions, reactions and news interpretations. My co-workers and I have talked about scheduling our social media habits at certain times of the workday and even taking off a day or two a week to give our brains a break.

Key Takeaways

Our suggestions may not be a bad idea, new studies are showing. A few trends are beginning to form as researchers delve into analysis of social media’s effects on our neural networks.

1. The Power of “Liking” is Strong.

Brains crave “likes” on social media. Like Pavlov’s dog, we’re trained to enjoy the rewards of another click, another emoji reaction, and another comment on our posts. We’re more likely to boost what other people like, too. In a study from 2016, Stanford scientists used brain scans and an Instagram feed to measure teens’ responses. They saw that users tended to “like” photos that had more likes rather than few likes, and their brains lit up in the areas associated with rewards, social cognition and attention. And when the participants looked at “risky” photos, such as drinking and smoking, the activation in their cognitive-control areas went down. Peer endorsement and peer influence ring strong in our heads, whether digital or not.

That influence can hit our bodies, too. In another study released last year, researchers in Amsterdam found that social network use tends to make use less satisfied with our bodies, especially in teens. They found that, despite previous thoughts that social media more negatively impacts women, it adversely hit both boys and girls. As you can imagine, peer influence was the most damaging aspect, especially on sites that emphasize appearance-related feedback.

2. Social Media Can Be Used for Good and Bad.

While researching the effects of social media, public health officials have turned to the potential positives of networking, especially for those who are sick. In studies and commentaries published in February, sociologists are talking about social media as a space for support. In particular, some young adults are turning to their peers for support around areas such as diabetes and mental health. The support groups seem beneficial, the sociologists say, but are the users also receiving accurate and professional health information rather than only peer-generated content?

That distinction can be particularly vital for mental health. In February, researchers in Pittsburgh published a study about social media use among those diagnosed with depression. They found that teens looked for positive content such as entertainment, humor, blogs and social connection. They also turned to negative content, such as sharing risky behaviors, cyberbullying and making self-denigrating comparisons with others. At times, they tended to overshare personal information, post during stressful moments and run into “triggering posts” for their depression. The researchers counseled them about how to shift from negative to positive use—and encouraged all users, no matter a mental health diagnosis, to follow a similar route.

3. We Need Face-to-Face Contact.

Our social media well-being seems to be inversely related to our in-person interactions. As in, social media use tends to bring us down, and offline meetups tend to pick us up. In January, Johns Hopkins researchers published a long-term study about Facebook use and well-being. Overall, they found that with each new “like,” link click or status update, self-reported mental health dropped 5 to 8 percent. In the same study, they saw that offline relationships boosted mental health by about the same amount. Imagine that when you mindlessly scroll through a news feed several times per day.

4. It’s Easy to Forget that Digital Divide.

As we become more comfortable with social media and meeting people online, we also need to think about the people—and their mental health— behind the other screen. In a study being released in March, Yale researchers looked at U.S. military veterans who used social media to find sex and how that impacted their psychopathology, suicidal ideation and sexually transmitted infections. The researchers saw that about a third of men and 9 percent of women used social media to meet someone for sex, and they were more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, depression, hypersexuality, suicidal ideation and treatment for an STI. Although it’s a specific study poking into the lives of a specific group, the research points to a larger discussion about why we’re online, what we’re seeking and how our brains may be affected by those experiences.

5. But We Can Still be in Control.

Pop culture and news analyses have begun to joke that we’re addicted to social media, and that some of us have a disorder or abuse issue. The American Psychiatric Association appointed a task force to study the idea and has officially announced that there’s not enough evidence to say internet abuse or social media abuse are mental disorders. Essentially, social media allows us to fulfill normal brain activities, such as connecting with others, searching for information, or conducting work-related tasks or leisure activities. What gets out of hand is when we’re motivated to check our phones as “a response to heightened stress and anxiety,” said University of South Florida researcher Moez Limayem, who published about mobile use in 2015.

So it makes sense that we use social media the way we do and that social media has changed our brains in the process. The key is continuing to watch our habits as social media develops and becomes more present in our lives.

Image: Jason Howie, Flickr, CC-BY

Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.

Share Tweet Submit Pin