Hands on heart: Have you ever checked your social media first thing in the morning? Just to see if you got any notification? Or do you spend long times scrolling through social media before you start working? Is your work sometimes interrupted by social media? Did you ever wonder what it does to your brain? Do you think it is addictive?

Roughly every 4th person on the planet is using some form of social media. As of 2019, individuals spend an average of 144 minutes a day on social media platforms. Originally built to connect people that might be separated spatially or temporally, they are nowadays insanely specialized in making you spend time and engage with content as much as possible. If you like, you could say they almost exploit the human need to socialize.

Why do People use Social Media?

People have different reasons to use social media and those reasons can even differ between platforms. Maybe you just want to stay in touch with family and friends that are living far away by posting pictures of your every day life. Maybe you want to bring your ideas into the world by writing texts or creating videos. Maybe you want to create a good image of yourself. Maybe you want to share your experiences with others. Whichever reason it is: social media satisfy those social drives and provide you with lots of feedback in form of likes, comments, shares, and follows.

The Evolutionary Side of Social Media Usage: The Need to Belong

Belonging to a group had significant advantages throughout evolution which can still be seen in animals that are living in social groups or herds. An individual in a group is safer from predators than alone, the chances to find a reproduction partner are higher, and access to food might be provided more easily. Therefore, prosocial behavior is rewarded and thereby reinforced just like eating is.

Translating this to our current lifes, managing the image that we create for others enhances our chances for success, be it family- or careerwise. Furthermore, our mental well-being benefits from social interactions.

Which Behaviors are Involved in Social Media?

According to Meshi and colleagues (2015), there are 5 key behaviors: broadcasting information, receiving feedback, observing the broadcast of others, provide feedback on broadcasts of others, and comparing yourself with others (e.g. numbers of likes or followers).

Are ‘Likes’ Rewarding?

Even without looking at the neural systems involved in social media usage, you can probably answer this question on your own. It does feel good to receive likes and positive feedback. It probably even makes you a little bit excited when you see the notifications. It makes you happy when the content you created seems to resonate with a big group of people.

And indeed, the reward system is involved in a similar way to sex, love, exercise, drugs, and gambling. They all can trigger a dopamine release, making us ‘feel good’ and want to come back for more. According to Meshi and Colleagues, especially the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and ventral striatum become active when receiving and giving feedback.

Pathways involving dopamine. Image by biorender.com.

Which Other Brain Areas are Involved?

Social media do not only make us excited about the received feedback, they also make us think about how our audience will possibly respond to our content, how other people will react to our feedback, and make us compare our own behavior to others. These thoughts activate two additional networks, the social cognition network and the self referential network (Meshi et al., 2018).

Can it Become an Addiction?

Social media addiction is not officially classified as a psychiatric addiction, as those mostly refer to chronic conditions that cause problems in your life. Compulsive social media use is often more temporary, however, it does share some characteristics with addition disorders like gambling or drug abuse. Some people use social media to actively influence their mood, often need to use them more to get the same effects, leaving them scrolling through the feed for hours. When limiting the use, individuals can even experience a withdrawal.

Gambling is addictive because you don’t know how many bets you will have to make before you win. […] When you check your social media, you cannot predict whether you received feedback or not.

Meshi and colleagues (2018)

Does Social Media Really Make us Feel Less Lonely?

Especially now in times of social/physical distancing keeping in touch over social media is the only way to go. It can help us feel connected. One could easily assume that using it more can help us feel less lonely, right? Not necessarily so! A study from Hunt and colleagues (2018) found, that limiting social media use to 30 minutes significantly decreased feelings of loneliness and depression compared to individuals that didn’t limit their time. The constant fear of missing out and comparison with others can impact our mood negatively, which is why it is sometimes good to…

…Take a Break

Seriously. Though it has been heavily discussed to remove likes from Instagram and co, social media platforms will probably not remove what drives their ‘success’. This is why it is in your hands to use the platforms responsibly. If you don’t spend much time on them anyways, great! But if you do, and it starts to impact your mood or your daily life, make use of the apps functions to track and limit the time of usage. Think about not using it on specific times of the day or week. Or ban it from the bedroom for example!

If you enjoyed this post, feel free to give my reward system a boost by liking, commenting, or sharing 😛

#Sciencerely,
Stina

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Meshi et al., 2018: https://psnlab.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/publications-pdf/MeshiTamir_TICS_inpress.pdf

Hunt et al., 2015: https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/social-media-use-increases-depression-and-loneliness

5 thoughts on “Your Brain on Instagram, TikTok, & Co – The Neuroscience of Social Media

  1. Interesting post! Social media can be rewarding and even addictive! It’s good to try to limit one’s time on social media, though it may not always be possible in a pandemic when we’re all at home on Zoom calls and the like.

    Like

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