Hacking Social Media: What Science Says about Facebook and Your Brain
This article was originally published on Medium
Social media gets a lot of bad rep in the media. With daily headlines like ‘mental health crisis’ and ‘media addiction’, it seems like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube ect., are only detrimental to our lives. But what we forget amongst all the fear mongering is that, at its core, social media is a tool; and we can use tools to our advantage.
Here I briefly explore some of the negative psychological impacts of social media usage, so that we can understand what, specifically, makes us vulnerable to these impacts, and then look at ways to change how we engage with social media so as to actually reap benefits from it whilst also mitigating the risks.
The Low Down
Social Media and Mental Illness
There’s strong evidence to show that engaging with social media platforms can harm our mental health; however, interestingly, this is dependant on the type of content we consume, and how we engage with it. In particular, if using social media induces feelings of envy or despair because we compare ourselves to other people and their apparent successes, this is linked to higher levels of anxiety and depression. On the other hand, if we engage with social media to appreciate other people’s lives, without that element of self-comparison, and to connect meaningfully with others this can actually foster positive feelings of connectedness.
Decreased Mental Efficiency
Our cognitive abilities can also be affected. For example, scrolling through twitter reduces our ability to comprehend and remember other sources of information that we subsequently encounter. This was chalked up by researchers to cognitive overload, and decision fatigue; this happens when we spend our finite mental resources on a task and- just like with a tiered muscle- perform less effectively on subsequent tasks (Mark Zuckerberg famously wears the same shirt every day to avoid doing just that).
So if it’s so bad for us, why do we keep tapping open those little icons on our screens? Well, because we can also experience benefit from it.
Along with the capitalisation of our dopamine reward pathways which can see us delve into untold hours of mindless scrolling and constant checking, we are also gifted with a stream of information that’s uniquely relevant to us; friend’s statuses, family’s photos, and- most importantly- content from media outlets that we enjoy consuming.
The great thing is that with the introduction of features such as ‘Unfollow’, and ‘See first’, on Facebook, we have more control than ever over what information we are exposed to. And we can use that to our advantage.
How Do I Use Social Media to My Advantage?
Here are a couple of suggestions.
“Primum non nocere”: First, do no harm
The next time you catch yourself scrolling through your social media of choice, check in with how you’re feeling. If we’re on Instagram, we might have spent the last ten minutes scrutinising half a dozen instagram models with better abs and higher product placement dollars than our weekly paycheck, or simmering over the cocktails that everyone else and their fifty closest friends had without you. Facebook might have introduced some political frustration, Bali-holiday jealousy, or enlightened meme appreciation.
Whatever content we’ve consumed, it’s a good idea to take a moment to reflect on the impact we feel on our energy levels, emotions, and outlook. To make social media work for us, we first want to make sure that what we’re exposed to isn’t draining our energy levels and leaving us worse than where we started.
Unfollow those people who constantly make you feel insecure about yourself; people who post about their perfect-looking life all the time (#blessed), people who endorse a poor work-balance lifestyle (#alwayshustling), or constant self-promoters (#validateme). You don’t got time for that.
Curate the Content You Want
Now that we’ve rid ourselves of content that evokes negative emotions, we can curate a feed that encourages our wellbeing and growth.
Think of your newsfeed a way to streamline information that you want to be exposed to.
For example, if you want to learn more about topics or skills like business marketing, vegetarian cooking, or sustainability, join groups of follow media outlets that focus on those topics. If you have particular ideals or values that you want to foster within yourself – like creativity, gratitude, body-positivity, ect.,- a quick Google search will point you in the right direction of bloggers, influencers, and outlets to follow. In this way, you can leverage social media as a tool for personal development and upskilling, adding value to your day.
Be Mindful of Your Usage
As well as being intentional in what content we see in our newsfeed, we also want to be cognizant of the time and place we spend accessing social media.
That’s because no matter how great the content is that we see, being on our phones in still antithetical to being in the physical moment, where life actually happens. Spending time online detracts from our ability to engage meaningfully and mindfully with the present- the true experience of life and human connection.
For that reason, we should try and moderate the times and places that we access social media, so as not to detract from actually living our lives.
In one study, young people who used social media for more than two hours a day reported significantly higher levels of psychological distress, including increased thoughts of suicide. A good idea to keep on top of the time we spend on our phones is to install an app that manages our phone usage, which can provide insight into how much time we actually spend online and help break us out of our mindless scrolling habits.
It seems obvious, and yet we all (at least sometimes) fail at practicing good judgment when it comes to where we jump onto Facebook. Sitting on our phones at the dinner table or in bed with a partner is going to hinder our ability to foster supportive and meaningful relationships in our lives. A good time is when we’re otherwise not meaningfully engaged, like on our commute to/from work, or even if we’re sharing a couch with others who are just watching TV.
Further to this, there is ample evidence showing that spending time on our phones in bed when we should be going to sleep can be damaging to our mental health. We’ve heard it before, but let’s try to put our devices to sleep at night.
Social media is neither good nor bad in itself; it depends on how we use it. Whilst passive scrolling and self-comparison will drag us down, if we can be mindful and intentional with our usage, social media can foster positive human connection and help us learn and grow.