Social media: Is it really the brain-killer we fear?

Article written by Tianna Nadalin, BodyandSoul, February 4, 2017

THERE’S something about that little red bubble that pops up whenever you have a new notification on social media.

Before you have time to register, your thumbs are keying in your phone’s pin code and you’re refreshing your screen to find out how many people have liked that oh-so-witty status update you made about that neighbour’s Halloween costume which turned out not to be a costume at all.

This obsession with monitoring social media, even despite the fact that it brings no joy and, in many cases, even produces negative emotional outcomes, has given rise to a new class of virtual dependency.

“On social media you don’t have body language or voice tone or eye contact.”


Dopamine, often referred to as the ‘motivation molecule’, is the neurotransmitter in charge of the brain’s reward centre. It allows us to have feelings of joy (in some cases, even euphoria) and is responsible for that rush we get when we achieve a goal.

Also often associated with addiction, it’s the chemical the brain releases when people take drugs, have sex, eat chocolate, shop, gamble or, in the digital age, log on to Facebook or Twitter.

“When you use social media, your brain releases dopamine, which is like a fountain in the brain that accesses and puts the brain into a state of pleasure,” Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and author of A Day in the Life of the Brain, says.

“The mistake is when it becomes the alternative to real communication.”

“Many people appear to be, by definition, addicted to social media; they need constant stimulation.”

It’s this constant need for stimulation, coupled with decreasing attention spans and a human tendency towards self-aggrandisement, Greenfield explains, that’s changing the way we communicate and behave in the real world. And it’s the younger demographics, she warns, that are most at risk.


Over the last decade, Greenfield says social media has started to impact interpersonal communication and identity.

“On social media you don’t have body language or voice tone or eye contact - all those things are really important for establishing empathy with people,” Greenfield says.

“You’re missing out on a fundamental dimension of communication that humans have had for centuries.”

“Nowadays, people are just subjected to an onslaught of second-hand images from someone else.”

Greenfield says many of the obsessive-compulsive behaviours people exhibit on social media - such as a lack of empathy, constant need for feedback and, ironically, a decrease in social skills - have some parallels with “autistic-like” behaviours.

The bigger issue, Greenfield says, is the way social media is affecting identity — or construction of the self.

She adds that construction of the self begins in childhood and believes early exposure to social media is, at least in part, why we’re seeing increasing numbers of children suffering from serious issues such as depression and anxiety.

Having days or times to go offline gives your brain a chance to reboot.

“As a child, the box didn’t ask you to climb into it,” she says. “It was just a little bit of cardboard that you wove a story around.

“You were in control; using your imagination to generate a story.

“Nowadays, people are just subjected to an onslaught of second-hand images from someone else. They’re no longer making up the story.”

By encouraging children to embark on creative activities away from the cyber realm, they can express themselves beyond just ‘liking’ the posts of others or worrying if they measure up.

“In so doing, they begin to develop a sense of self that’s autonomous and more grounded than in often unrealistic cybersphere.

Maintaining a sense of “real” communication beyond social media is essential.

“The best we can do for our children is give them resilience and confidence and that’s difficult to achieve without an identity,” Greenfield says.


“For people who have a solid background of real friends in real life, social media can be hugely beneficial, as long as it’s used as an adjunct to your real life,” Greenfield says.

“The mistake is when it becomes the alternative to real communication.”


1 Have detox times

Allocate days or time where you go offline. This gives your brain a chance to ‘reboot’ without constant distraction.

2 Family meals

Eating together will remind you of how it feels to communicate with words rather than keystrokes.

3 Get outside

Burning up kilojoules is good for your health and being in nature will help you reconnect to the real world.

4 Read stories

This will divert attention span and imagination in a way that the screen never will.

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