How to Use Social Media Without Harming Your Brain

Did you know that the average amount of time spent on social media worldwide is 147 minutes a day? That’s what the latest data shows. A decade ago, half of Americans were using some form of social media, but today, that figure has ballooned to 72%, according to Pew research.

It makes one wonder, what does all that scrolling and engaging do to our minds?

According to research, nothing good. Studies have found an association between social media use and increased anxiousness, low mood, and mental distress, especially in teens and young adults. Mental health experts have raised concerns about how social media use can overstimulate the brain’s reward centers, lead to sleeplessness, negatively impact memory, and increase distractibility.

This underscores how vitally important it is to protect your brain and mental health and learn how to use social media in a healthy way.

Here’s how social media impacts your brain and what you can do to develop healthy social media habits.

Social Media and Your Brain

Social Media 2Social media platforms aren’t truly free. An account may be “free,” but that allows a platform to have access to you – and that’s how they make money.

Your attention is the product they sell to brands wanting to advertise to you. Each platform is designed to grab your attention and hold it for as long as possible. Ultimately, your brain pays the price.

Social media platforms are designed to take advantage of your brain’s built-in reward system.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced by your brain and it plays a central role in motivating behavior. For example, dopamine gets released after we exercise, when we enjoy a bite of something delicious, or when we feel pleasure from having a meaningful social interaction. It motivates us to repeat these behaviors and experiences, which helps us to survive.

Social media exploits this reward system for its own benefit. For example, when you get a notification, such as a sound, like, comment or mention, your brain gets a rush of dopamine and sends it along the neural reward pathways, causing you to feel pleasure. Each social media platform provides you with many ways to receive rewards in the form of attention, and it requires very little of you to get them.

Your brain actually rewires itself through all this positive feedback so that you desire the likes, reactions, comments, and retweets.

Have you ever misplaced your phone only to feel some level of panic? Or do you find yourself wanting to check social media whenever you have a moment or pause throughout your day?

That means a social media platform has successfully hijacked your attention.

The problem is that some people, when feeling stressed, lonely, or in a negative mood turn to social media to get the dopamine pick-me-up that perhaps is lacking in their lives. They can spend too much time on social media, finding it difficult to pull away.

Spending too much time on social media can make your mood feel flat or deadened. Your pleasure centers can get worn out, and you’re more likely to suffer from low mood.

Social media has been shown to have other impacts on the brain, including:

Focus

Because social media competes for our attention with the promise of endless amounts of enticing content, those who use it frequently become less able to ignore distractions in general. Researchers call it “increased susceptibility to distraction,” and it leads to poorer cognitive performance and shrinks parts of the brain associated with maintaining concentration.

Memory

Many social media users enjoy recording and sharing their experiences either with words, videos, or images. However, researchers believe that using social media platforms to document experiences may impact your memory about the very experiences you seek to remember.

It turns out that recording moments and events may impact your transactive memory (the way your brain divides information and decides where it should be stored).

While you will have a log of information and images recorded on social media about a particular event, you may not store as many details about that experience internally in your memory.

Sleep

Social media is highly associated with sleep disturbances. In fact, research shows that those who check social media most frequently have higher incidences of sleep issues.

Blue light from your device stimulates parts of the brain that make us feel more awake and alert. When checking social media before bedtime, as many people do, it keeps you from winding down, which is needed for sleep. If you wake up and check your phone at night, the impact on sleep is even worse.

Healthy sleep (7-9 hours a night for adults) is essential to brain health. Sleep rejuvenates all the cells in your body, gives brain cells time for repair, helps wash away toxins that build up during the day, and activates neuronal connections.

When you don’t get enough sleep, you have overall decreased blood flow to your brain, which disrupts thinking, memory, and concentration. It also can negatively impact blood sugar and mood, and increase appetite.

7 Healthy Social Media Habits to Help Protect Your Brain

Don’t go deleting all your social media accounts just yet! Instead, use them wisely and cautiously, keeping your brain health in mind. Try some of these suggestions:

  1. Consider a social media detox of several days to a week to “reset” your brain. Enjoy enriching activities like human interactions, reading, cooking, baking, relaxing hobbies, a nature adventure, and sleep instead.
  2. Delete distracting social media apps off your phone for the day when you need to concentrate on other things.
  3. Limit your screen time on social apps: Allow yourself a specified amount of time that feels reasonable for social media (maybe 30-40 minutes) at a certain time of day.
  4. Disable notifications for all your social media apps.
  5. Keep your display black and white.
  6. When you feel compelled to check your phone, take a 15-minute walk or practice meditation in a quiet area instead.
  7. Instead of scrolling before you go to sleep, make a new habit before bed that you enjoy. Read a book. Write in your journal. Cuddle with your spouse. Look at social media earlier in the evening or day.

Get Help If Needed

Social media addiction is estimated to affect roughly 10% of users. If you continue to struggle with keeping social media use at a healthy level, reach out to a mental health professional.

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Kim Henderson
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