Neuroscience: the impact of social media on the brain

Excessive screen-time is a common occurrence in our digital world, but what are the effects on the brain? How does it alter mental health and wellbeing? Recent studies shed a light on how social media and screen addiction influences neural pathways and neurotransmitter release. 

Social media has been proven to be highly rewarding, releasing both dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitters that are responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. For example, likes on an Instagram post give instant social validation, that everyone craves to a certain extent, as humans are social mammals by nature. In moderation, this can enhance mood and wellbeing, but excessive consumption of social media and the internet over a long period of time may have detrimental mental health and neurological impacts. This is especially prevalent among young people whose brains are still developing. 

Sometimes the urge to check social media can be so habituated that the enjoyment may have gone, but one may still have the compulsion to check their phone. Some scientists argue that this could be classed as an ‘addiction’, in the same way as drugs, alcohol or gambling. This can have other implications for wellbeing because as time spent on social media increases, less time is spent on arguably healthier activities such as exercise or socialising face-to-face. 

A 2019 study by Dr Riehm and colleagues at Columbia University concluded that teens using social media for more than three hours a day are subject to a higher risk of mental health problems. Since teenagers’ brains are still developing, social media influence has an even more profound effect than it does for adults. It can actually rewire the brain to be more reward-seeking and addictive, which may translate into other unhealthy behaviours, such as over-eating. 

A 2017 study by Dr He at Southwest University in China found that brain regions such as the nucleus accumbens and amygdala were activated during times of active social networking. Both of these brain areas are heavily associated with reward and triggering impulsive behaviours. The amygdala also is an aspect of the ‘reptilian brain’ – the part of the brain that is rooted in our evolutionary past for survival – and activates the fear and anxiety response through the sympathetic nervous system. Continuous amygdala activation can lead to increased stress and anxiety, ultimately worsening general wellbeing and psychosocial functioning. 

In addition, Dr Heidi Allison Bender, a neuropsychologist with Weill Cornell Medical Centre, emphasised the impact of social media use on the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a frontal brain area responsible for judgement, reward and reasoning. This part of the brain does not fully develop until age 23-24 years. She also highlighted the fact that these reward brain areas become less sensitive to social cues over time, which could impact one’s ability to form healthy relationships later in life. This is because they may have less of a drive to form social bonds if it is not as neurally rewarding. Furthermore, the danger is that children and teens may only be seeking reward from social media, instead of enjoying real-world pleasures away from the screen. 

However, it may be possible to reverse any adverse effects of social media usage through a ‘dopamine detox’ to trigger neuroplasticity in the brain, so that new neural pathways can form for rewarding activities other than social media. This may include engaging in alternative activities such as reading, playing sports or drawing.  

It is important to note that social media does have its benefits, such as connecting with friends who live far away or getting inspired by artistic or creative posts. However, according to current neuroscientific research, it is best consumed in moderation in order to promote positive mental health and overall quality of life. 

Featured image: Samantha Gades on Unsplash  

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