Social Media's Effect on the Brain
Written by: Tamzid Razzaque
Date: January 2021
Over 3.81 billion people use social media worldwide. That is almost half of the world’s population, and according to Benjamin Herold, among the teenagers within this population, over 80% have or are currently using social media. Social media apps like TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook are among the most popular apps to teens that house millions of postings per day and take up almost 3-7 hours of a teenager’s day on average! Researchers are saying that this time spent on social media may be affecting teenagers’ brains.
So what exactly is social media doing to a developing brain?
It starts with the reward center in the brain: the ventral tegmental area (VTA); which is one of the primary parts responsible for determining the rewards system in people’s bodies. When social media users receive positive feedback (likes) on their posts, their brains fire off dopamine receptors, facilitated by the VTA (online.king.edu). This temporarily boosts the user’s happiness and confidence.
After prolonged time on social media, just like most teens are doing, the effects of the external dopamine stimuli could be compared to those introduced by narcotic drugs and gambling. Yes... drugs. Over time, your brain will get used to having this constant dopamine rush from getting likes, or seeing something funny; but when this artificial pleasure is taken away, your brain will start to crave for more.
Outside of the rewards systems, social media stimuli can affect the brain’s decision-making and emotional processing functions. In a study performed by King University that observed the brain activity in adolescents, researchers found that parts of the brain that deal with emotional and sensory processing reacted noticeably when participants felt excluded. This study highlighted the effects of “online social exclusion” on the developing brains of adolescents. What this means is that when social media users are excluded from online groups, chats, or events, the brain reacts in these specific regions directly.
As it occurs at younger ages, the growth of the brain may differ. Social media is affecting the teenage brain, particularly its plasticity, which is the way the brain grows and changes after experiencing different things (CNN.com). This does not have to particularly be a negative thing, but based on different social media experiences, it can be. For instance, teens may be more prone to peer pressure, depression, and lack of attention. But it could also lead to more common knowledge and better problem solving. The future of the brain is a game of chance when it comes to social media, but there should not be a gamble in the first place. There is a healthy amount of social media, and since more and more teens are joining social media apps every day, the chances that one will become addicted or depressed are increasing.
How to counteract?
Luckily there are ways to counteract the effects of social media before it is too late:
Offtime (iOS, Android) - This app helps users unplug by blocking distracting apps like Facebook and games and filtering communications. It includes information on how much you actually use your smartphone. You can choose tailored modes like Work, Family, or Me Time to ensure that you have access to the things you need, but aren't distracted by what you don't. Analytics of your phone and app usage can be an important wake-up call, and can help you curb your habits.
BreakFree (iOS, Android) - BreakFree incorporates the usage tracking features found in many similar apps, but it differs in that it breaks down the information into an easy-to-understand "addiction score." It also shows you how often you unlock your phone screen, and comprehensively logs your usage for the day. This system makes it a great choice for those who like to set goals and challenge themselves. In an ironic twist, it can almost be addictive to try to see how low you can get your addiction score.
Moment (iOS) - Moment tracks your device usage and allows you to set daily limits; the app notifies you if you exceed them. You can even use a setting that "forces" you off your phone by flooding your screen with annoying alerts when you try to extend your screen time. Moment can also be used for families, with the option to track your family's device use from your own phone.
Other things to try:
Delete the app - When in doubt, just delete the app. Addiction itself is a disorder that is difficult to withdraw from, but to get to that point will take a while. So even though it may seem difficult to delete social media, it is possible with self-motivation and strength. Try to delete the app for a few days, download it again for one, then delete it again.
Learn something new and be creative - Everyone has the urge to try something, but will think it’s too much work. But without the time wasted on social media, there will be more time to spare. Interested in art? Try it out. It will not be bad for you, and will instead teach you valuable skills.
Sports - Even if you believe that you are unathletic, you may still enjoy trying out a sport. Maybe try biking or hiking on some local trails. Or play soccer with some friends. Try it out; it does not have to be competitive. Enjoy the outdoors, and before you know it, you will forget social media ever even existed.
East, Susie. “Teens: This Is How Social Media Affects Your Brain.” CNN, Cable News Network, 1 Aug. 2016, www.cnn.com/2016/07/12/health/social-media-brain/index.html.
Goldman, Jeremy. “6 Apps to Stop Your Smartphone Addiction.” Inc.com, Inc., 21 Oct. 2015, www.inc.com/jeremy-goldman/6-apps-to-stop-your-smartphone-addiction.html.
“How Many People Use Social Media in 2020? (65+ Statistics).” Backlinko, 12 Aug. 2020, backlinko.com/social-media-users.
“The Psychology of Social Media.” King University Online, online.king.edu/news/psychology-of-social-media/.