Social Media's Impact on the Brain

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Well, friends, it looks like I’m  a couple weeks late in posting this. Guess what happened—I got back on social media and got so sucked in and distracted again that I didn’t make time for my favorite thing—WRITING! Point in case. Maybe I should just end here. Social media can become a very negative thing when we aren’t careful, and I for one, have a hard time being careful and limiting myself. So, my apologies, truly!!

I guess I’m a work in progress. But, this example makes me all the more excited to write this next piece about how social media impacts our brain. Personally I can see it happening. Even when I don’t want to be looking at social media, I feel drawn to it. I feel overwhelmed and stretched thin emotionally, worried about what everyone will think if I don’t post for a couple days or respond to their messages and comments almost immediately when they send them. In just a few weeks of being back on it, I have begun to feel more sad, to feel more insecure about my body, and to feel pride creeping back up. I’d spent weeks in deep discussion with God, and suddenly I found myself right back to square one—looking at social media instead of praying at night, scrolling Facebook instead of reading my Bible, etc. It’s crazy how quickly my brain reverted.

Last night, I turned notifications off on my phone. I couldn’t even see who commented, yet my finger still swiped and clicked on those little icons without me even consciously considering opening them. It’s like a habit ingrained into my mind that I can’t seem to shut off. So, please, if you have any tips on how to be present on social media WHILE breaking bad habits and having self-control—share them in the comments! Because I admit, this is a major area of weakness in my life!

Please, tell me someone else out there can relate?!

I assume many other people can relate, because in my research I discovered something called the “Internet Pardox.” It was described by LaRose as “compulsive, pathological, problematic, or addictive behavior.” He goes on to discuss how after repetition, we actually become “inattentive” to our activities online and the control shifts from our cortex to our basal ganglia which processes nonconscious activities.

So, it’s a real scientific thing when I say I don’t even realize I’m clicking the buttons! My brain just does it and I have to consciously try to stop. Is that scary to anyone else? Because it’s a little frightening to me. Not so much for myself, because I’m adult with the cognitive ability to understand the risks and consciously choose to shut it off. But, if it’s SO HARD for me, what about my kids?! How are they ever going to be able to control it? If I’m honest, it just freaks me out a little bit.

LaRose, in the same article, says that people may then be less likely to notice any problem associated with their use of online activities. They genuinely may not notice how it is impacting their school, work, or social activities.

Let’s just pause for a minute of reflection. You already read how this is impacting my life. If you haven’t, you can find out how this social media curiosity started here. But, now, after seeing my story, and reading a little bit about this study I mentioned, can you see any negative habits or life impacts from your own social media use? I just think it’s good to reflect, so we can always be focused on giving first priority to God in our lives.  

Maybe you still don’t understand how social media truly impacts the brain—here’s another example:

Did you know that when people see a bunch of “likes” on their photos or photos of peers on social media, it activates the same circuits in the brain that are activated when they eat chocolate? This was discovered by Wolpert at UCLA. He discovered that the active area is the nucleus accumbens which is a part of the reward circuitry in the brain. In their testing, they were also able to see activation in areas of the brain known as the “social brain” and others linked to “visual attention.”

Wow! When I read this, it blew my mind! I thought I was just staying in touch with people and I didn’t understand why I felt so “addicted.” But, if it’s activating those parts of my brain, then it makes complete sense. Don’t you think?

I still wanted to know though, how it made me feel so anxious and depressed. How did social media affect me in such an emotionally negative way? So, I did even more digging.

An article by Gordon explained that the “Ventral Tegmental Area” of our brain is in charge of our social needs and releases dopamine when we are successful socially and neurochemical deficits when we aren’t. The problem is, this area of our brain doesn’t determine “social status” like we would want it to—it uses the same cues as if we were in a dangerous situation.

This study by Gordon intrigued me because it reminded me of what was happening to my body when I began seeing my functional medicine doctor. My doctor had explained how different parts of our brain respond differently—how we have both a parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. In short, the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge of our rest and digest, or our autonomic nervous system functioning. But, when our brain perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system takes over. This is the nervous system that we were given by God to protect us in dangerous situations, situations like being attacked by a wild animal or an intruder in our home. Our adrenaline spikes and we end up in fight or flight mode. A problem arises though when our brain begins to perceive minor things as threats and we wind up in a constant state of “fight or flight.” But, this happens often, because our brain doesn’t know the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat.

When we are in fight or flight mode then, it messes with all of our autonomic nerve functioning, our blood-flow, our digestion, our neurotransmitters, our MOODS.

So, back to Gordon’s article—that’s essentially the point he was making too! He explained almost exactly what my functional medicine doctor explained, but in terms of social media. Gordon said that when there is a difference in the world and what our brain’s core beliefs are, a threat happens. This causes the hippocampus to signal the amygdala and then the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal initiates the stress response. Blood pressure rises and moves blood and oxygen to large limbs preparing to “fight or flee” the situation. Glucose gets released into the bloodstream for energy and this triggers a whole bunch of other responses in the body. All of these things are great, IF we’re being attacked by a tiger, not if we perceived a threat on social media because someone said something that upset us.

In other words, social media is filled with perceived threats. So, when our mind is repetitively filled with these “threats” we are at high risk of ending up in a seemingly never-ending “stress-response” which truly impacts our mood and health in major ways.

I’ve been in that spot before—where my body was in a constant state of fight or flight because my sympathetic nervous system had taken over. It was one of the worst couple years of my life until my functional medicine doctor helped me to “turn it off” in a sense. So now I’m super guarded, because I don’t want social media or perceived threats around me to put me back into that same boat again!

And I don’t want that for you either!

I’m truly just blown away by the science behind our brain and nervous system, and how social media can have such a serious impact. These are just a few of the studies out there showing the effects, but I encourage you to research it for yourself! It’s very eye-opening!!

For now though, I’m curious what your biggest take-away was? What was the brain impact that was most surprising to you?

References

Gordon, Billi. “Social Media Is Harmful to Your Brain and Relationships.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 20 Oct. 2017, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/obesely-speaking/201710/social-media-is-harmful-your-brain-and-relationships.

LaRose, Robert. “Social Networking: Addictive, Compulsive, Problematic, or Just Another Media Habit.” Michigan State University, pp. 1–37.

Wolpert, Stuart. “The Teenage Brain on Social Media.” UCLA Newsroom, 31 May 2016, newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/the-teenage-brain-on-social-media.