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As I first considered this topic, I set out on what I expected to be a basic info-gathering endeavor about the connections between social media usage, our brains, and human behavior.  What I quickly learned is that there is no simple roadmap to completely understanding these connections as of yet.  After all, the first time that researchers compiled any literature reviews of empirical data on this topic was in 2011, a short decade ago (Kuss & Griffiths, 2017). As we all know, social media platforms and our relationships with them have greatly changed in that 10-year span, and with it the research focuses. What I imagined to be a brief experience in data-gathering actually turned into a full day of bunny-trailing into the many nooks and crannies of information that researchers are still trying to piece together about the effects of social media usage on the trajectory of our collective and individual psyches.

Here are a few things I have learned:

  • Social platforms can help build needed connection with like-minded individuals, increase feelings of belonging, and introduce someone to diversity of thinking (Fotuhi, 2020).
  • Overuse of social platforms can increase the prevalence of anxiety and depression (The Psychology of Social Media 2019)
  • Participation in social media platforms can result in a “social media identity bubble” in which individuals only begin to behave and communicate in a way that connects with and is praised by particular groups of which they are affiliated. This could also lead to Group Think.  (The Psychology of Social Media 2019)
  • Social media has the potential to bring empowerment to someone’s ability to construct a personal identity. This can increase feelings of autonomy, personal control, and independence (psyche_the_mag, 2021).
  • Social media can also create space for these identities that we create to be insincere, misleading, or even blatantly counterfeit. Sometimes this may happen without the person even recognizing that what they are portraying is, in fact, completely deviant from the truthful reality of his or her real life (The Psychology of Social Media 2019).
  • Social media can help people who struggle with social anxiety to feel part of a greater whole without the immediate stressors that are experienced in an in-person setting (psyche_the_mag, 2021).
  • Too much time connecting virtually can (and is) leading to a break-down of the in-person skillset, “leaving individuals unable to engage in meaningful conversations because such skills are being sacrificed for constant connection, resulting in short-term attention and a decreased ability to retain information” (Kuss & Griffiths, 2017). This can also lead to a similar type of addiction as substance abuse.

 

Ok, cool. A list of glaring contradictions about the benefits and downsides to social media.  How helpful.

The truth is, we are still learning about the specific, long-term effects of social media usage on the brain.  However, it is obvious that our growing reliance on social platforms for connection and identity-creation is absolutely impacting the parts of our brains that engage with reward pathways, memory processes, decision-making, identity formation, emotional awareness, and attention (Fotuhi, 2020; The Psychology of Social Media, 2019).

That is a lot of neurological areas, people. Researchers are incessantly delving into the specifics of when, how often, and to what scale these impacts are having on our daily functioning.

Some of these questions we can answer on an individual basis, though.  Think for a moment about your own relationship with social platforms.  Let us say you’re in the doctor’s office waiting room and, for whatever reason, you left your phone in the car. What emotion do you experience when you realize this? A small surge of panic? Boredom? Desire to scroll?

Sit with these feelings as you imagine this scenario.  Or even more importantly, think about the last time you had to sit with any level of discomfort or boredom without access to information or a social media platform in which to propel yourself.  How difficult was it to sit with only your own thoughts?

Weird, right? Our distress tolerance is seemingly decreasing as our reliance on technology grows.  I can certainly feel it in my own life if I ask myself some of these specific questions.

Fifteen years ago, maybe you would have struck up a conversation with a stranger in that waiting room. And if that is not your style to engage with a stranger, you probably would have at least given them a smile, or grabbed the most-intriguing magazine on the table. Or you would ponder something insightful that you recently heard—or write a grocery or to-do list.  Maybe you simply took in your surroundings, observing the smells, sounds, and sights of the office.

By the way, those observations of present environments through the use of the 5 senses are actually called “attention-training,” or more commonly known as the practice of “being in the present” (psyche_the_mag, 2021).

More often than not, we are NOT practicing the art of “being in the present” due to our constant inundation of notifications and access to external content.

We have not even begun to discuss the other reasons we pick up our phones outside of social media usage.  I could easily expand this discussion to include the use of smartphones in general: answering emails, reading the constant cycle of news (the process of which I’ve heard referred to as “doom-scrolling), or playing mindless games.

Oh, and guess what the exact opposite of being present-centered is? Anxiety.

Let me explain.

Chances are, if you are in that waiting room for something minor or insignificant, you are probably not facing any immediate stressors.  You are off work for a minute, catching some time alone, and just having a physical or a check-up.  But the instant you remove yourself from experiencing the present situation, you open yourself to the greater possibility of experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety could be defined as the emotional and physiological response to a stressor that is not actually present. (Stress or fear responses, on the other hand, are appropriate, biological responses to an active stressor or danger).

When we take ourselves out of the present moment so often with social platforms, emails, and the increasingly devastating news cycle, we open ourselves to countless new moments of anxiety–an external world of stressors that were not originally present with us in that waiting room. And when we experience that anxiety, our bodies quantify it as Stress, and thus enact the same physiological response as if the stressor was actually present.  The stress hormones meant to keep us safe from real and present dangers end up being awoken each time we imagine a non-present danger.  The result?  We end up walking around each day in increasingly anxious states of being, with all of our stress-hormones elevated in response to non-present stressors.

Yeah. This would be a good time to release that tension in your shoulders.

See how the rabbit trails on this topic are many and varied? Overuse of social media (and media in general) affects our biological, physiological, social, and emotional selves.  We may not understand all of it just yet, but we CAN practice presence in the meantime.

In fact, I challenge you to practice being in the present right now. Put your device away. Observe your surroundings using each of the 5 senses. Take some deep breaths.  And allow yourself to experience a little reprieve from the screen.

 

References:

Firth, J., Torous, J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J. A., Steiner, G. Z., Smith, L., Alvarez‐Jimenez, M., Gleeson, J., Vancampfort, D., Armitage, C. J., & Sarris, J. (2019). The “Online Brain”: How the internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry, 18(2), 119–129. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20617

Fotuhi, M. (2020, December 11). What social media does to your brain. NeuroGrow. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://neurogrow.com/what-social-media-does-to-your-brain/#:~:text=Changes%20in%20Attention,information%20is%20at%20your%20fingertips.&text=Not%20only%20does%20this%20lead,brain%20associated%20with%20maintaining%20attention.

Kuss, D., & Griffiths, M. (2017). Social Networking sites and addiction: Ten lessons learned. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(3), 311. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14030311

McSweeney, K., Robinson, R., & Bonderud, D. (n.d.). The intersection of technology, Innovation & Creativity. Now. Powered by Northrop Grumman. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://now.northropgrumman.com/this-is-your-brain-on-instagram-effects-of-social-media-on-the-brain/.

MindHandHeart. (2020, January 23). Nine tips for healthy social media use. MIT News | Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://news.mit.edu/2020/mindhandheart-nine-tips-healthy-social-media-use-0123.

psyche_the_mag. (2021, September 29). How to use social media if you have social anxiety: Psyche guides. Psyche. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-use-social-media-if-you-experience-social-anxiety.

The Psychology of Social Media. King University Online. (2019, September 19). Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://online.king.edu/news/psychology-of-social-media/.

 

Allison Hurst, MS, NCC, LPC

Author Allison Hurst, MS, NCC, LPC

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