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What social media is really doing to your brain

Two young women play on their phone while out for coffee

Neuroplasticity and just how social media affects your brain

Two young women play on their phone while out for coffee

If you’ve ever found yourself aimlessly scrolling through your Facebook feed well into the night, or falling down the Instagram ‘rabbit hole’ and accidently landing on your ex-boyfriend’s, cousin’s, pet dog’s fan page, it might be neuroplasticity that’s to blame according to research.

But, what is neuroplasticity and just how is social media affecting your brain?

What is neuroplasticity?

Our brains have the capacity to physiologically change in response to new situations or changes in the environment. Referred to as neuroplasticity, this process happens when the brain forms new neural connections. Neuroplasticity allows us to adapt and learn from experiences.

And it becomes even more important for people with a brain injury.

Neuroplasticity can kick-in if one side of the brain is damaged – the intact side may take over some of its functions by reorganising and forming new connections between undamaged neurons.

Credit: SENTIS

What’s this got to do with social media?

Because social media is still a relatively new platform, it may take decades to get any definitive long-term research on our brain’s response to social media.

However, there have already been studies showing how social networking is altering our consciousness in a few surprising ways.

1. It’s as addictive as a drug

Find it hard to switch off from social media? You’re not alone. A study has shown that the internet can be as addictive as a drug.

The researchers compared behaviours associated with addiction including introversion, withdrawal, craving and negative life consequences and found that people who used a higher amount of data experienced more of these ‘addiction’ characteristics – meaning the internet could be causing the brain’s reward pathways to change in a similar way to someone addicted to drugs.

The mid-21st century could be characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism and an inability to empathise

2. It’s affecting our nervous system

Have you ever felt your phone vibrating with a call or notification and reached into your pocket – only to find that it was all in your imagination? Called phantom vibration syndrome, research has found that this phenomenon could affect almost 90% of us.

It’s suggested that our brains are being rewired to perceive an ‘itch’ as a phone vibration – meaning it’s not only your brain affected, but your nervous system too.

Credit: Georgia Tech

3. It’s shortening our attention span

Professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution Lady Greenfield believes that social media is putting attention spans at risk.

"Children’s experiences with social media are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity."

Another study by Stanford University has shown that social media may have rerouted our brain’s ability to multitask. The research found that higher media users were "more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory."

So while it may seem like constantly being ‘online’ would make you better at multitasking, it actually does the opposite – making us more prone to distractions.


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