How social media re-wires our brain

Advice #3: Toss your phone in the bin.

So I’d like to consider myself a digital minimalist, to some degree.

As someone who grew up with the privilege of the internet in the early 2000s, it’s safe to say I watched social media blow up. I remember a time where we had to literally log on to Yahoo Messenger.

But even though I’ve had this post in my drafts for a while (and longer in my mind), the recent Social Media Blackout of 2021 (haha) for a couple of hours made it more interesting.

What does it feel like to be constantly online, never truly off? Why did I feel a very tangible relief the day I deleted the Twitter app off my phone, a while ago? What does this all mean?

Especially because, things haven’t always been this way…

Our brain on social media

It’s no longer news that the internet affects our brains, especially in physical ways. And with the unholy solemnisation between smartphones and social media, it seems it can’t be escaped. It’s everywhere we turn.

There’s a real reason red colours our notifications (aka novelty, which the brain loves). I mean, isn’t that the colour known for Stop and Danger signs?

There’s also something to be said for seeing numbers. Numbers aren’t static, like words. And I mean that visually.

And so we can’t help but want it to change, preferably for the better, even when you think you don’t care. Up rather than down because who wants to see those red, downward-facing arrows that spell something humans instinctively fear — failure. Failure gets you booted out of the primitive tribe, meaning a loss of shelter, food and relationships.

But even though we’re a long time away from primal life…

There’s a reason you can’t get off your phone. It’s intentional. It’s designed that way.

Because dopamine is released and the reward/pleasure pathway is activated in the brain, social media is the high that keeps on giving. Who doesn’t want to feel good? Areas such as the ventral tegmental area and striatum have been implicated, thanks to the positive validation from online (and offline) likes.

Social media provides instant rewards with little to no effort. This rewires the brain, basically saying you can get maximum pleasure from doing mostly nothing. You don’t really have to go out of your way to make small talk or send people gifts to be liked or fully socialise.

“Through social media, hyperstimulation works to reorganise our predictive model and restructure our habits: we wake up and reach for our phone, never leave home without it, and constantly feel drawn toward our phones even when in the company of friends.” — Aeon

This study showed that “viewing photos with many (compared with few) likes was associated with greater activity in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention.” 

“The simple act of pushing a button to reveal information has been shown to trigger arousal and compulsive behaviour, and newly developed features on smartphones add further layers of anticipation.” — Aeon

I personally can’t remember the last time I had “views” up on WhatsApp. I’m unbothered about who sees my posts or doesn’t. This isn’t because I’m above it all (trust me, I’m not) but because I assume if I saved your number, you might as well. Why do I then need to know you did?

But I’ve often had to ask myself this…

What does it matter anyway?

I mean, maybe we’re addicted to one thing or the other. Coffee. Work. Religion. Pick your poison, right?

To be honest, I think social media as a whole gets a bad rep. Isn’t it responsible for increased global connectivity, quick access to information and digital nomad jobs?

I mean, is an inanimate object inherently good or bad, or does it simply possess whatever we confer on it?

But maybe some poisons are better than others. Maybe some don’t work as fast?

I remember someone once posit the theory of what if oxygen is a poison that kills humans slowly, over time? I found it intriguing but mostly amusing because the alternative is to die within minutes.

🕯 Question: can we adapt Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to Posting Online?

Life is on a spectrum. Similar to how the classification of mental disorders is not solely based on the symptoms, because they occur to a small degree to the average person — anxiety, depression etc. But the emphasis is often on how severely they impact the quality of daily living; work, socials, the basics. It becomes an issue when it’s no longer “just bants”.

Whether it’s becoming accustomed to our filtered version (& the validation that comes with it) or experiencing the phantom vibration syndrome (when your phone isn’t actually ringing), the situation is clearly problematic. It’s all fun and games till…

“The first thing they (adolescents) do on waking up in the morning is to check what is happening, and being without a phone for 30 minutes becomes an issue. And when they lose their phones, they become sick.” — Dr. Jibril Abdulmalik

And he’s right.

Withdrawal symptoms from fellow addictive substances, such as alcohol, are a real phenomenon. This has behavioural symptoms such as intrusive thoughts about the said thing, agitation and boredom. Not to forget the physiological ones.

Contrary to how it might feel, the internet hasn’t even been around for that long. It’s difficult to say what the long-term effects might be.

But since spending less time online, I’ve noticed a few things:

I’ve become more patient, especially with tasks such as reading. I finish one piece now, without hurrying, before moving to another.

I’ve also become more thoughtful, mulling over my own internal world. Creating my own opinions rather than the ones I’m served 24/7 by a faceless algorithm.

I feel more settled. I’m not even sure if that makes sense. But because I’m prone to anxiety (from the past), I realised I’ve felt less in a hurry.

📖 Re-read this oldie but goldie on Why Multitasking Sucks:

The Mind Nodes
Why multitasking is a myth.
I’ve spent the past few days in a mental frenzy. Have you ever just felt like there are a thousand and one tabs open in your head? Well, yeah. That’s how I’ve felt. And it’s especially weird as work has been light all week and I’ve had an ungodly amount of relatively free time…
Read more

I don’t mean to sound alarmist. To be honest, I’ve edited this post a thousand times because I didn’t want it to read like a social-media-is-the-devil conspiracy theory piece. But I can’t help but acknowledge both sides of the coin that social media offers us.

And I think it’s better to be fully informed.

What’s your relationship with social media like?

Leave a comment

Also, can you take a guess of how many times I picked up my phone to “check” while writing this piece?

If this was forwarded to you, you can sign up here:

🔌 Recommendation of the week!

This song, which always calms me.