How Social Media Affects Your Brain

By Hana Frenette
NeuLine Health

Social media has drastically changed the way we communicate, learn, share and engage with the world— it’s also changing the way our brain functions. 

According to Pew Research, more than 69% of adults and 81% of teens use social media daily, with more than 90% of teens using it for more than 4 hours a day. The constant ability to access social media through smartphones means our brains are exposed to high volumes of stimulation and our neurons are firing all day long, which creates changes in the neurological architecture of our brain. 

Research demonstrates regular social media use is changing our brain structure, function and cognitive development in three key areas:

Attention capacity

When using apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, users are viewing what seems like an endless scroll of photos, captions, comments, likes and tags. While users are processing this constant influx of information, additional app prompts and notifications are competing for attention and can cause individuals to displace their concentration across multiple incoming media streams. 

This puts our brains in a constant state of multitasking, thus hindering our ability to focus and shortening our attention span.

Researchers believe that since social media competes for your attention with the promise of continuous new content, heavy social media users become less able to ignore distraction in general, which leads to poorer cognitive performance and shrinks parts of the brain associated with maintaining concentration.

Memory and Information Processing

Studies suggest social media affects the content of memories, the recollection of memories, and the capacity of memory. 

Millions of people use social media to record and share their experiences, but new research shows that using social apps to document an experience may actually diminish your memory of the moments you sought to preserve.

Researchers believe social media is affecting our transactive memory— the way our brain divides information and decides where to store it. With the advent of social media and smartphones, we know where to find information or proof about the event, but we don’t keep as many details about the experience stored internally in our memory.

Social and Emotional Response

Social media is made to be addictive. Each like or positive comment presents a little hit of dopamine to our brain, thus creating reward pathways in the brain causing you to desire likes, retweets, etc. 

However, the absence of likes and comments can leave us feeling empty, sad, anxious or depressed because our brain isn’t getting that hit of dopamine. 

Research shows regular social media users, especially those under 30, often find themselves comparing their lives to those they see online, questioning their self-worth and overanalyzing their relationships and importance to those in their social circle based on social media. 

Self-comparison and feeling left out aren’t concepts specific to social media, most social media apps allow the process to happen much faster, and much more often than real life social interactions. Studies have shown interactions people experience online, whether positive or negative, can start to shape user’s behavior in their real world experiences, according to a study from the Relationships and Technology Lab at the University of Kansas. For example, people may feel additional pressure to present their ideal-self, and go out of their way to take photos just for social media usage. Growing evidence indicates this kind of exaggerated self-representation perpetuates the cycle of comparison and often leads to feelings of inadequacy and sadness.

Avoid Overstimulation from Social Media 

If you’re feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed after too much screen time, try a few of these quick tips:

Limit your screen time on social apps: Allow yourself only 35-45 of social media time a day and designate a specific time of day to use the apps. 

Control your phone: Turn your phone off when you’re working on a project, or delete social media apps from your phone so you aren’t tempted to pick up your phone and scroll during the day. 

Relax your mind: Instead of reaching for your tablet or phone to scroll through a social app, take a 15-minute walk around the block or practice meditation in a quiet area of your home, away from any electronics. 


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