HOW ONLINE INTERACTIONS AFFECT OUR BRAINS.
SOCIAL MEDIA HAS made the world smaller, giving us the ability to communicate across vast distances, with about a third of the world’s population using it to some extent. That communicative power, however, is coming at a cost. Studies have found that heavy social media use is affecting our self-control, hurting our self-esteem and changing the dynamics of our relationships.
In 2012, Andrew Stephen and Keith Wilcox from Columbia University conducted a survey of 541 Facebook users in the US, asking participants about their online habits, their financial situations, and eating and exercise routines. It was found that for participants who had close online ties, Facebook is “a significant predictor of a range of behaviors that are consistent with poor self-control” by causing “unintended psychological consequences” — giving users an ego boost. Previous studies have also found that this temporary ego boost can result in a loss of self-control over spending and eating habits, a form of self-indulgence and over-spending. In fact, even images of food can lead to altered appetites, adding to cravings and thus leading to over-eating.
A study out of UCLA’s brain mapping centre (and published in 2016) found that the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s reward centre, sparks up every time someone ‘likes’ our post or comment on social media. Most users yearn for those likes, resulting in an addiction that’s very similar to alcohol or drug abuse.
A BIT OF FOMO
For anyone suffering from a mental health disorder, heavy social media use can’t be healthy. Everyone’s lives seem to be picture perfect on social media, with pictures of holidays, laughter and good food — who doesn’t want that for themselves? This facade alters the way we live our lives by changing the way we think. Instagram, for example, has been found to exacerbate body image issues in teens, while Facebook is notorious for affecting sleep patterns (with users waiting for comments and likes on their posts) and adding a sense of FOMO (‘fear of missing out’).
A study conducted by HP Labs in 2011 found that social media users are quite prone to peer pressure. If a post, photo, video or something else on a social platform had even a moderate number of ‘likes’, people can change their minds about the subject. The study also found that if a large number of people disagree with us, we tend to dig in our heels and be stubborn, even if we are wrong.
Online interactions could well be affecting our real-life relationships by changing the way we have face-to-face conversations. In 2011, Lady Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist (and baroness) addressed the House of Lords, saying, “Real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf.” Strong words, but that statement was closely followed by a scientific paper that suggested face-to-screen interactions could be affecting our bodies. In fact, there is such a thing as “phantom vibration syndrome” (also called ringxiety fauxcellarm). Online interactions seem to be rewiring our nervous system in such a way that even an itch can seem like a phone’s buzz and we reach for our devices to check what’s happening online.
SO WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
For starters, it would be great if we could set aside our phones for a while and focus on the things that are right in front of us. Watch the world go by during your morning commute if you use public transport, read a physical printed book [ Or a magazine — Ed], or strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the train or bus.
When using social media make an effort to be positive — negativity is not only going to affect your mood, but also the person it’s directed at. And, more importantly, remember that social media is a made-up place — images could be edited, posts could have elements of fiction in them, or your friends could only be sharing things they want the world to see. So take it all with a pinch of salt or filter it to best of your ability.
A STUDY OUT OF UCLA’S BRAIN MAPPING CENTRE FOUND THAT THE NUCLEUS ACCUMBENS, THE BRAIN’S REWARD CENTRE, SPARKS UP EVERY TIME SOMEONE ‘LIKES’ OUR POST OR COMMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA.