There are currently 2.34 billion social media users worldwide, and this number is expected to reach nearly 3 billion in the next 4 years. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are thriving social media platforms due to their growing amount of users. What exactly causes humans to derive so much pleasure from staring at a screen for hours on end? And more importantly, how does it affect our cognitive functioning?
More Likes = More Dopamine
When it comes down to it, dopamine is the reason why most Millennials are obsessed with social media. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that motivates us to seek out experiences that make us feel pleasure. It also plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour. Recent research shows that your brain’s opioid system is what causes you to actually feel the pleasure that dopamine is encouraging you to seek. This could turn into an endless cycle: dopamine causes you to seek pleasure, you get rewarded when your opioid system is activated, and then you want to seek more pleasure. Hence the cycle of posting a picture of Instagram, getting a high number of likes and feeling acknowledged by others, and later posting more pictures so you can get the same response and feel the same pleasure. This cycle is what keeps us from becoming bored with social media and motivates us to continue using it.
Unpredictability also causes the release of dopamine. For example, part of the reason why you might get sudden, intense urges to stalk your ex on Facebook is because the situation is unpredictable. There’s no way of knowing what you’ll find before you see it. Did they change their relationship status? What did they do last weekend? Did they post any new photos? This suspense and unpredictability stimulates dopamine and motivates you to engage in that behaviour (that is, constantly checking their page) even more.
It’s common knowledge that you are able to connect with someone on a more intimate level when you talk to them in person instead of over social media. This is because when you communicate over social media, mirror neurons are not being activated in you or the other person. Mirror neurons play a major role in your capacity for empathy and understanding for others. They also help you understand another person’s intentions. Mirror neurons are released when you witness someone else perform an action, such as making a facial expression, and to a certain degree you feel what they are feeling. When you DM someone on Twitter or send them a Facebook message, your brain isn’t able to activate mirror neurons since you can’t see the person’s actions and expressions. The absence of mirror neuron activation could cause confusion and frustration if, for instance, you don’t know whether to interpret the tone of someone’s message as happy, angry, or neutral.
Self-Esteem and Mental Health
Social media could have a profound effect on your self-esteem, which could affect your mental health and even your brain composition. While getting a lot of attention and “likes” on a post causes opioids to be released and makes you feel pleasure, comparing yourself to others could have an adverse effect. As my roommate’s friend put it, “Instagram makes me feel ugly.” By comparing yourself to fitness models and celebrities on a daily basis, you could be lowering your self-esteem to a dangerous level. Over time, low self-esteem could actually make your brain smaller. A study that surveyed 92 senior citizens over 15 years and then studied their brain scans showed that the brains of those with low self-worth were up to 20% smaller than those with high self-worth! In addition, participants with low self-worth performed worse in memory and learning tests.
Like anything, social media has its benefits and downfalls. Refrain from comparing yourself to unrealistic images so that you can keep your brain functioning at an optimal level, try to engage in more face-to-face conversations so you can understand your friends better via mirror neurons, and reap the benefits of your activated opioid system next time you get a lot of likes.