This Is Your Brain on Social Media

Credit: Flickr/Tanja Cappell

Ewan Shand

Ewan Shand argues that maintaining a clear head in a world of information is difficult, but possible.

Every generation is defined by something. Youth culture has always been punctuated by its cultural movements, from punk in the 70s to rave in the 90s. Our generation will be remembered as the first who grew up with the internet. Like it or not, this incredible utility was thrust upon us and it has fundamentally shaped our development. Personal communication and media have evolved radically over the last 20 years, and the way we think about ourselves and others have changed with it. Relationships with this new technology can, however, become toxic. A phone is like a vital organ, an internet connection like a sixth sense. While it has afforded us many benefits, it has come at the cost of a worrying dependency that has the potential to spiral into addiction. It is hard to deny that the luxury of constantly available, boundless information has stunted our collective attention span. Is it too late to find a healthy medium in our use of social media, or are our brains doomed to be at the mercy of our information addiction?

If you could find out the amount of time you spend staring at a computer screen per week, would you want to know? Salesforce chief Marc Benioff recently said that networks like Facebook “should be regulated like the cigarette industry”. Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, stated that technology companies “exploit a vulnerability in human psychology”. Social Media apps are engineered in a way to release tiny hits of dopamine in the brain, leading to a cycle of social media use that rewards time put in. In small amounts this is harmless enough. The risk is suddenly finding yourself wasting hours watching Vine compilations and itching for likes in the hundreds, wondering where the energy and attention you used to have has gone.

Opportunities to be alone with your thoughts have become rarer with the increasing ubiquity of the internet and smartphones. Older generations always talk of the boredom they had to endure as kids, a sentiment that someone who’s played Flappy Bird for 4 straight hours will never know. But this isn’t a youth-specific issue – the effects of social media can be detrimental to people of all ages. Anyone with a smartphone has to wrestle with the temptation of constantly checking it. It’s arguably the fact that we’ve all somewhat lost the ability for our brains to be inactive, and to rest, because of how accessible all of this information is.

Our collective patience and attention span have been slowly eroded by the way content has evolved on social media. Online content has now been especially adapted to be immediately attention-grabbing, since there are only crucial fractions of a second to hold a consumer’s attention when there is so much competing content looking to capture it. We can see this in the “mini-trailers” that are popping up before actual trailers. Subtitles are a necessity in videos now so you can be watching it without even bothering to unmute it. We are now hard wired for instant gratification which denudes our ability to properly focus. The emergence of fake news and clickbait titles are one example of this. We click titles that are obviously misleading because we don’t take the short amount of time to properly consider them, so much so that some countries, such as Germany, have now taken legislative measures against misleading content in the form of fake news on Facebook. Being stuck in a room with a thousand voices screaming for attention makes it almost impossible to really listen to any of them.

Famous preacher of the anti-digital word, Quentin Tarantino recently explained why he isn’t an avid Netflix viewer. In an interview he talked about the sense of “commitment” that streaming apps like Netflix have deprived us of. The wide choice and speed of streaming means we are less likely to have the patience to stick with something we aren’t totally loving 10 minutes in. In the days of renting you committed to the film you had to travel to get; you might possibly end up watching a hidden gem, or something that wasn’t quite your thing but maybe refined your taste. He makes a good point that while it gives us such wide choice, we might actually be safer in our choices than before. For instance, it’s not uncommon to spend hours deciding what to watch and then settle on watching the same episode of your favourite show for the 100th time.

Social media has also been linked to a rise in mental health problems like anxiety. Again, in short bursts, it isn’t that harmful, but abuse can exacerbate existing mental health problems. Social media is a platform where people and brands present the best versions of themselves. “My X is better than yours” is a seemingly harmless caption but with with potentially harmful ramifications. It may cause users who are predisposed to insecurity and unhealthy comparisons with others to do so more often. Our use of social media can lead to us vicariously living and longing for other people’s lives while totally ignoring our own. Social media can be perilously addictive, but the solution is not complete abandonment.

There are many reasons why our relationship with the internet is one worth saving. The opportunity to be able to connect with so many people around the world has cultivated a mass of niche subcultures. If you’re the only person you know that likes a certain book, or movie, it’s highly likely there are other like-minded people to connect with. It’s an often-heard sentiment that “the internet is ruining our youth”, and that it is mass media’s way of indoctrinating us. However, this talk is as old as the first time Elvis Presley gyrated his hips. Meme culture has become one of the great idiosyncrasies of our generations youth culture. There is something profoundly fascinating about a massive in joke that people, usually young people, all around the world share and laugh about. Time and time again traditional media will try and get in on it and fail horribly – we’re looking at you, Sky News.

It’s easy to see that the internet can be both a gift and a hindrance. Social media is inextricably linked to how we function now, and it will only continue to expand its influence. It’s hard for our generation to even remember what life was like before the internet. That’s why it’s so important that we learn to live not just with it, but without it. The content on social media is tailored to fuel our collective dependence on information, but if we can change our behaviour, the internet will evolve for the better. We are the pioneering generation for the internet, and as such we will always be remembered as the internet generation. We only need to make sure that we define how much power the internet has over us, and not the other way around.