This is your brain on social media

Image by thinkstock
Image by thinkstock

The good, the bad, and the ugly of constant connectivity

By Alex Stanton, Staff Writer

For better or worse, the Internet—and, consequently, social media—has spent the past 15 or so years establishing itself no longer as a luxury, but a utility. A complete and utter necessity for governments and citizens of the first world.

It’s widely used by young people—the first generation of kids to grow up with a computer—for myriad purposes. The most common of these purposes, unsurprisingly, is having an easy and efficient way to stay in touch with friends and family; it’s also useful for letting everyone know what is going on and taking pictures for Instagram likes and a nice little ego boost. This is all fantastic; it’s precisely what the Internet was built for: connecting with the world around you; people who you wouldn’t otherwise stay in touch with, or even end up being friends with. In a world where most people pad out their friend lists with as many as 1,000 former classmates, work buddies, fleeting acquaintances, and twice removed third cousins, it’s ironic that many users of social media end up feeling more alienated and alone than they did before they created an account.

Unless your parents forgot the whole “moderation is the key to true happiness” pep talk when you were a kid, it’s not that hard to comprehend the fact that too much of a good thing can be really bad. When people think of the word “addiction,” the first thing that comes to mind are drugs, gambling, or any other sort of vices. But addiction to social media is very real because people spend countless hours connected to their phones for the same reasons other people spend countless hours connected to a one armed bandit—they need a way to relieve their boredom and their itch for the occasional ego boost.

Dr. Shannon M. Rauch, a researcher at Benedictine University in Arizona and one of the many scientists exploring this new phenomenon, stated that the likely cause of this is the consistent positive reinforcement many users receive through accumulating likes and comments on their status updates, pictures, and other posts. Of course, like an addict whose highlight of the day is scoring a bag of crystal meth, all of the positive reinforcement one gets from Facebook develops into a habit of logging in and checking multiple times a day—which at least 40 per cent of accounts in the United States do—and the user is less able to accept the idea of disconnecting from electronics.

Dar Meshi, a German scientist who spearheaded a research team dedicated to this very topic, found that people who received likes and comments (positive reinforcement) had much more noticeable activity in a part of the brain associated with the production of chemicals linked to the human reward system, called the nucleus accumbens. The general consensus among experts on this particular note is that addiction to Facebook is a very practical thing stemming from an unprecedented need for attention and acceptance among their peers. That’s commonly how Facebook addiction—or any form of addiction—begins; it’s a long, slow ride down the slippery slope.

Many people living in the information age feel more comfortable communicating over the Internet as opposed to in person. On paper, it appears like social media scratches your interpersonal itch in every way but, as author Stephen Marche pointed out in his essay titled Is Facebook Making us Lonely?, social media gives you the access and the means to start communicating with, well, basically anyone who also uses the same networks. However, rarely will you achieve the deep, interpersonal closeness that comes with building a friendship face-to-face. Obviously, focussing on the quality of your close friendships—and not the quantity of your acquaintances—is a much healthier way of going about social interactions.

Excessive social media use can obviously lead to mental and emotional health issues In a poll by Anxiety UK, 53 per cent of those polled stated that social media platforms have altered the way they act in general. Out of that group, half clarified that the change had been negative. Those that answered negatively were also asked what exactly they felt had become worse. Anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem were the most common responses. According to Dr. Rauch, the three main reasons for this phenomenon are users comparing themselves as a whole to people on their friends list, who may appear to the user to be doing better than them; social anxiety and loneliness due to avoidance of face-to-face interaction; and cyberbullying which, with the advent of social media, has become a society-wide issue.

Of course, this isn’t to say that social media is the devil’s work. There are many benefits like fast, efficient communication with people, but they are obviously much more pronounced and widespread than the effect it may have on people with mental health issues—the people who don’t really have a voice as it is. Social media is here to stay, and like with everything else mankind has encountered, we’ve done a great job of adapting to it. Remember, though, too much of anything is bad. Want to find out if you’re hooked on to networking? Turn off your phone for 24 hours straight and see for yourself. I dare you.