Health

How your brain operates when using social media

Social media has been blamed for a rise in anxiety, depression and insecurity. So what is actually happening to you when tweeting or on Facebook?

Woman using mobile phone

Social media provides a platform for interaction and distraction that can counter isolation and loneliness, but the digital world of follows and likes is also blamed for a rise in anxiety, lower levels of self-esteem and insecurity. Or the complete opposite if you’re President of the United States. Either way, it can be addictive. But why?

Studies show that people who use Facebook for over two hours per day are almost three times more likely to suffer from depression. But does social media increase depression or does depression increase social media use? It likely works both ways, creating a cycle; the more depressed someone is, the more they use social media and the worse their mental health will become.

1. GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Every post, share, like, comment or invitation creates an expectation and anticipation that a sense of belonging and connection will be generated.

Every post creates an expectation that a sense of belonging will be generated

2. GETTING STIMULATED

One brain region involved is the nucleus accumbens, considered to be the brain’s reward centre because it responds to a variety of rewards including money, sugar, and positive social feedback.

3. CHEMICAL REACTION

Dopamine is released, which reinforces positive behaviour needed to sustain life, for example eating or drinking, to encourage repetition. Instead of being a pleasure in itself, like one of Pavlov’s dogs, dopamine reinforces our idea of where potential rewards come from.

Young woman using mobile phone

4. DOUBLE SHOT

If your interaction is connected to a subject or activity that naturally gives you a dopamine shot – food porn or anything involving kittens – sharing gives a second hit.

5. RED ALERT

Receiving an alert becomes a conditioned stimulus, predicting a personal reward (maybe someone’s sent a video of kittens sneezing or pandas playing chess) or that someone approves of your activity (thinks you’re funny).

6. POSITIVE SIGNS

If somebody out there likes you, it stimulates the same areas of the brain as someone smiling at you in the real world or praising you at work. These social reinforcers also boost social media use.

Receiving an alert becomes a conditioned stimulus, predicting a personal reward

7. ENVIOUS GLANCES

Research has shown that browsing posts and photos recording other’s successes can trigger envy, misery and loneliness, especially if their updates seem to be more popular than yours.

SO HOW CAN YOU MANAGE THE DIGITAL DOOMS?

• Turn off automatic notifications

• Check social media at specific times, for example after mealtimes or during breaks at work

• Do not use digital devices for at least 30 minutes before going to bed

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