Kelly McSweeney

Mar 17th 2019

This is Your Brain on Instagram: Effects of Social Media on the Brain


In the last 15 years, social media has become such a pervasive part of our lives that we don’t even notice how much time we’re spending on it. Statista reports that the average person spends 135 minutes on social media each day, following an upward trend of increasing time spent on social media each year. This raises the question: What are the effects of social media on the brain?

Psychology: Comparison Is the Thief of Joy

A University of Pennsylvania study examined how social media use causes fear of missing out (“FOMO”). In the study, one group of participants limited their time on social media to 30 minutes a day, while a control group continued to use Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram as usual. The researchers tracked the participants’ social media time automatically via iPhone battery usage screen shots, and participants completed surveys about their mood and well-being. After three weeks, the participants who limited social media said that they felt less depressed and lonely than people who had no social media limits.

Psychologist Melissa Hunt led the study. She explained, “‘Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.'”

Hunt suggests that the reason for feeling depressed after spending too much time on social networks boils down to comparison. When viewing someone else’s curated life online, it’s easy see their perfect pictures and think their lives are better than yours.

Physiology: Brain Chemistry Leaves Us Craving More “Likes”

Neuroscientists are studying the effects of social media on the brain and finding that positive interactions (such as someone liking your tweet) trigger the same kind of chemical reaction that is caused by gambling and recreational drugs.

According to an article by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, when you get a social media notification, your brain sends a chemical messenger called dopamine along a reward pathway, which makes you feel good. Dopamine is associated with food, exercise, love, sex, gambling, drugs … and now, social media. Variable reward schedules up the ante; psychologist B.F. Skinner first described this in the 1930s. When rewards are delivered randomly (as with a slot machine or a positive interaction on social media), and checking for the reward is easy, the dopamine-triggering behavior becomes a habit.

Side Effects of Social Media on the Brain

Spending too much time on social media isn’t just a bad habit; it can have real consequences. Science shows that we are basically carrying around little dopamine stimulators in our pockets, so it’s not surprising that we’re constantly distracted by our phones. A TED video explains that social media makes us bad at multitasking and causes phantom vibration syndrome, which is when you feel like your phone is buzzing even though it’s not.

Just like a gambling or substance addiction, social media addiction involves broken reward pathways in our brains. Social media provides immediate rewards — in the form of attention from your network — for minimal effort through a quick thumb tap. Therefore, the brain rewires itself, making you desire likes, retweets, emoji applause and so on. According to TED, five to 10 percent of internet users are psychologically addicted and can’t control how much time they spend online. Brain scans of social media addicts are similar to those of drug-dependent brains: There is a clear change in the regions of the brain that control emotions, attention and decision making.

To make things worse, according to TED, the reward centers in our brains are most active when we’re talking about ourselves. In real life, people talk about themselves 30 to 40 percent of the time; social media is all about showing off your life, so people talk about themselves a whopping 80 percent of the time. When a person posts a picture and gets positive social feedback, it stimulates the brain to release dopamine, which again rewards that behavior and perpetuates the social media habit.

Moderation Is Crucial

The science is clear: Too much social media can alter our brain chemistry. But there are also many good sides to social media; for example, we use these networks to stay in touch with friends and family and to connect to more people across the globe. reports that social media is good for science communication, which is critical for getting research findings to shape public policy. As for what can be done to mitigate the negative, the University of Pennsylvania study suggests that limiting the amount of time spent on social media can reduce harmful psychological effects.