This Is How Social Media Can Change Your Brain & Yikes, I Need To Put My Phone Down

by Julia Guerra

Do you remember the first time you uploaded a photo to Instagram, or better yet, filled out the “about me” section on Facebook? For millennials especially, it’s hard to imagine life before social media, when we’d make plans with our BFFs by calling them, rather than sending them a note via Facebook Messenger, or passing notes to crushes in classrooms, instead of swiping right on a dating app. Think about just how much these smartphone apps have changed our social lives; can you even imagine how social media changes your brain? Sure, it’s super convenient to basically have 24-hour access to family, friends, and buzz-worthy news, but is the over-saturation and constant communication really getting us anywhere positive?

Sometimes I catch myself thinking all the way back to seventh grade, when my best friend at the time created my first blog on Xanga, an old school platform for online journaling, and I wonder if that was the start of something destructive. From there, I fell down what I can only refer to as a social media rabbit hole, signing up for MySpace, Tumblr, and eventually Facebook my sophomore year of high school.

I held off on getting a smartphone until my junior year of college, but once that piece of technology was in my hands, I downloaded every social media app I could to see what all the fuss was about. From there, the obsession spiraled out of control. Social media became more than entertainment; it was a lifeline, and it's only now that I can see just how dramatically these apps control not only how we live our lives, but also how our brains develop.

For example, "likes" on social media can be addictive because they trigger the brain's reward system, leaving us wanting more.

My first post on social media was — *surprise* — a selfie I took lying down on the rug in my dorm room. I’ve since deleted the shot, but I remember my friend Melissa commenting about how lucky I was that I’d garnered likes in the double-digits on my very first post. I didn’t really understand what the big deal was at the time, but once I started posting more, and some photos received more recognition than others, I found myself actually staging photos and actively thinking of ways to make myself or my dinner plate look aesthetically pleasing — but for what?

In a 2016 study carried out at UCLA, researchers scanned different regions of the brains of 32 teenage participants browsing a social media app developed to mimic Instagram. The results showed that when your pictures receive a lot of "likes," it stimulates the reward circuitry of your brain. This causes you to feel satisfied which, of course, leads you to use social media even more. In other words, we're all vain AF, at least on social media platforms.

Lead author on the study Lauren Sherman told CNN,

Reward circuitry is thought to be particularly sensitive in adolescence. It could be explaining, at least in part, why teens are such avid social media users.

And because most of us started using social media during adolescence, it should come as no surprise that after years of living our lives on these apps, we're all sort of mentally fixated on and drawn to the kind of attention that social media can offer us.

We're so drawn to it, in fact, that we spend a pretty mind-blowing portion of our lives scrolling through social media.

According to a 2017 infographic from the site Social Media Today, which provides news about what's happening in the industry of social media, the average person spends roughly two hours on social platforms every day, which will come to a grand total of five years and four months spent browsing through these outlets over a lifetime. Clearly, we can no longer use that "I don't have time" excuse for anything, because we do, actually, it's just being eaten up by piecing together subtweets and admiring foodtography.

While there's nothing wrong with using social media as a means of entertainment or as a resource to keep up with news and pop culture, there's an issue when mindless scrolling becomes borderline instinctual any time we pick up the phone. What's worse, social media has, for many people, become a main source of human interaction, and that can negatively affect how your brain develops.

Dr. John Richey, an associate professor in the psychology department at Virginia Tech, told the university's student-run newspaper Collegiate Times that humans need to interact with one another face-to-face to ensure our brains develop properly. Filling that void via artificial interaction and typing — rather than talking — makes it difficult, then, for the brain to pick up on social, as well as nonverbal cues, that are "displayed through the face and body."

Furthermore, because too much social media time can hurt your ability to pick up on social cues or experience another person's body language, these nonexistent details make it easier for internet trolls to be more courageous online. They're not being taught what is or isn't socially acceptable, because social media is, in actuality, just ink on a cyber document.

Social media can also affect how well your brain switches focus from one thing to the next.

We millennials tend to pride ourselves on being masters of multi-tasking, but newsflash: we're kidding ourselves. The truth is, stopping whatever we're working on to answer an email or scroll through Instagram is killing our focus. We think we're giving ourselves a break, when really, we're putting our progress on pause.

TIME reports that your brain can take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes to regroup and return to whatever it was you were doing before answering that Facebook message or snapping your lunch. Still proud of your so-called "skill?"

Dr. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told TIME that going back and forth between tasks causes what's called a "switch-cost." This means that your brain "stumbles a bit" and needs time to absorb any information it may have lost, and get back on track. In other words, you may want to re-think how you're spending your 20-minute study break.

I think it's safe to say that, by now, we're all aware that social media isn't so great for our mental health, but when you start diving into the actual science behind these platforms and what scrolling does to the inner workings of your brain, it really makes you consider whether or not time spent on social media is time well-spent, or if it's just plain destructive.

Of course, social media isn't all bad. You just have to figure out a healthy way to use it.

Trust me, you're not alone in this, friends. Social media has all of us hooked (I even catch my mother scrolling while we're out to lunch), and while there's certainly a lot of evidence that outlets like Instagram and Snapchat may do more harm than good, there absolutely is still good that comes from using them.

You've heard the phrase "everything in moderation," right? This doesn't just apply to food. Browsing through your social feeds a few times a day is totally fine, and even if, once in a while, you fall into a black hole of stalking this person's second cousin's boyfriend's profile, it's OK.

Social media only becomes toxic when your life revolves around counting how many likes your pictures get on Instagram, or your fingers instinctually click on an app after you text someone back. Do yourself a favor, and consider scheduling free time throughout the day when you're free to scroll, but once that time is up, put your phone away. Don't use your smartphone to lull yourself to sleep, and make sure the majority of your socialization is IRL, not artificial.

I promise, a miniature social media hiatus can be amazing for you and, who knows, you might even find you don't need it as much as you thought.