October 27, 2023 PCI Centers
Pew Research Center states about 72% of the American public use social media¹
It is natural to feel compelled to stay informed about what’s happening in the world around us, even if it can be distressing. We can be engaged with the media while still regulating our stress response. In this article, we dissect the latest research on how social media both positively and negatively affects our brains and behavior. Scroll for tips on how to use social media without feeling burnt out.
Social Media and the Brain, Explained
The positive experiences from social media can promote the release of dopamine in the brain. Social media users experience motivation, reward, and reinforcement from social media use, which can potentially lead to social media addiction (Woods and Scott, 2016). Positive feedback on social media in the form of ‘likes’, ‘friend requests’, notifications and general validation of content activates the brain’s reward system (Meshi et al., 2015). Similarly, liking or sharing other people’s content serves as a prosocial behavior much like donating to charity. Social media use is also associated with reduced gray matter in the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with emotions, fear, and motivation (Turel et al., 2017).
Digital Consumption has Real Impact
We generally have a limited attention span, so our brain has to decide what to focus on. The “salience network” in the brain helps us pay attention to what is important such as threats and opportunities, and coordinate the brain to respond accordingly. Social media and notifications can activate the network using banners, lights, dots, and vibrations. Suddenly many things begin to occupy our attention and mind. We’re also more drawn to negative content or information, because our brain thinks if we pay attention to it then we will be safe from the perceived threat. Algorithms amplify this effect, potentially locking people in perpetual fear, anxiety, anger, or depression yet not empowering people to turn away.
Contrary to what we may expect, we can react to digital stimuli in similar ways as physical stimuli. When we encounter distressing or graphic imagery–especially on an ongoing basis–our brains and bodies will remain in a state of uncertainty and expectation, causing stress and dampening our mood (Blades, 2021). When it comes to reading distressing news or watching conflict unfold, doom scrolling can lead to learned helplessness (Huff, 2022). For this reason, professor Matthew Price, Ph.D. at the University of Vermont in Burlington suggests for social media users to not passively scroll but instead put energy toward the initiatives and spaces that align with your values.
Positive Impacts of Social Media on Mental Health:?
- Social media use can foster belonging by connecting people to online social groups and communities (Reyez, 2023).
- Social media enables people to communicate and stay connected globally, connect with like-minded people, join or become aware of causes, seek or offer support to others, discover niche communities, express self, learn new information (Allen et al., 2014).
- A Harvard researcher and his team found that daily social media use has a positive correlation with social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health (Bekalu et al., 2019).
Negative Impacts of Social Media Mental Health:?
- Contributes to anxiety, depression, poor sleep quality, suicidal thoughts, and lower self-esteem (Meshi et al., 2015).
- Body image concerns, as people compare themselves to others. For example, social media use has been linked to body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms (Vannucci et al., 2017).
- People use it as a “security blanket” to escape social situations that make them feel anxious, awkward or lonely (Robinson, 2023).
- High potential of harassment or bullying
- Takes up time that could otherwise be used on productive behaviors or positive self reflection
Tips on managing screen time, according to American Psychiatric Association¹⁵
- Schedule a time to use social media and a time to be offline
- Turn off notifications or delete the apps from your phone that are overwhelmingly distracting, or causing you distress
- Catch yourself if you’re holding your breath, and remember to breathe and ease the tension in your body
- Filter your following and feed to better ensure balanced content
- Work with an accountability partner for support
1. Demographics of social media users and adoption in the United States. (2023b, May 11). Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/
2. Bekalu, M. A., McCloud, R. F., & Viswanath, K. (2019). Association of Social Media use with Social Well-Being, Positive Mental Health, and Self-Rated Health: disentangling routine use from emotional connection to use. Health Education & Behavior, 46(2_suppl), 69S-80S. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198119863768
3. Meshi, D., Tamir, D. I., & Heekeren, H. R. (2015). The Emerging Neuroscience of Social Media. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(12), 771–782. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2015.09.004
4. Woods, H., & Scott, H. (2016). #Sleepyteens: Social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self‐esteem. Journal of Adolescence, 51(1), 41–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.05.008
5. Moreno, M. A. (2014). Influence of social media on alcohol use in adolescents and young adults. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4432862/
6. Nesi, J., & Prinstein, M. J. (2015). Using Social Media for Social Comparison and Feedback-Seeking: Gender and Popularity Moderate Associations with Depressive Symptoms. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 43(8), 1427–1438. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-015-0020-0
7. Lin, L. Y., Sidani, J. E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J. B., Hoffman, B. L., Giles, L. M., & Primack, B. A. (2016). ASSOCIATION BETWEEN SOCIAL MEDIA USE AND DEPRESSION AMONG U.S. YOUNG ADULTS. Depression and Anxiety, 33(4), 323–331. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22466
8. Vannucci, A., Flannery, K. M., & Ohannessian, C. M. (2017). Social media use and anxiety in emerging adults. Journal of Affective Disorders, 207, 163–166. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2016.08.040
9. Fardouly, J., Vartanian, L. R. (2016). Social Media and Body Image Concerns: Current Research and Future Directions. Current Opinion in Psychology 9.
10. Allen, K., Ryan, T., Gray, D., McInerney, D., & Waters, L. (2014). Social Media Use and Social Connectedness in Adolescents: The Positives and the Potential Pitfalls. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 31(1), 18-31. doi:10.1017/edp.2014.2
11. Reyes, Z. A. (2023). Pros & cons: impacts of social media on mental health. BMC Psychol
12. 6 tips to help take control of your social media use and improve well-being. (n.d.). https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/apa-blogs/tips-to-take-control-of-your-social-media-use
13. He, Q., Turel, O., & Bechara, A. (2017). Brain anatomy alterations associated with Social Networking Site (SNS) addiction. Scientific Reports, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep45064
14. Robinson, L. (2023). Social media and mental health. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/social-media-and-mental-health.htm
15. Social media and the brain. (n.d.). https://www.humanetech.com/youth/social-media-and-the-brain#question-2
16. Blades, R. (2021). Protecting the brain against bad news. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 193(12), E428–E429. https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.1095928
17. Huff, C. (2022). Media overload is hurting our mental health. Here are ways to manage headline stress. Monitor on Psychology 53 (8) https://www.apa.org.https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/11/strain-media-overload.