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The Link Between Our Brains and Social Media

Why is it that we're so addicted to checking social platforms for updates from our friends and family? I'll explain, then offer 4 tips to help you resist.
The Link Between Our Brains and Social Media
Image credit: Adam Kuylenstierna | EyeEm | Getty Images
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Founder of JaboTV, Media Personality, Keynote Speaker and Consultant
6 min read
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The following excerpt is from Jessica Abo’s book Unfiltered: How to Be as Happy as You Look on Social Media. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

Social media has become the 21st-century escape from our everyday lives, whether it’s to cure boredom when standing in the checkout line or to seek a sense of belonging when no one’s talking to us at a party and we want to give the impression that we’re cool and connected.

On the other hand, by plugging into our social networks, we can make meaningful connections. We can find long-lost friends, reconnect with relatives, discover community groups or find jobs and love. Our feeds enable us to remember people’s birthdays and learn new things from the articles our friends post. We can “listen in” on people’s conversations and debates without having to participate. With one click, we can promote our businesses or donate to a cause.  

Our social networks are great for content sharing, too. Whether it’s details for a local charity drive or suggesting tourist attractions for a friend heading to Greece, we can share a lot of useful information. Studies have shown people who are battling an illness benefit from the support they receive through social media, too. If you’ve ever had a friend send you the perfect inspirational quote, funny meme or viral video when you’re having a bad day, you know how quickly that can raise your spirits. So, no, social media isn’t the enemy. Loneliness is.

Unfortunately, many people who log onto social media seeking a sense of community only find superficial support. No matter how much weight we put on the number of followers, subscribers or likes we get, that doesn’t mean all those people would come to our birthday party or be there for us in the middle of the night.

And we know we don’t have to check our phones every five minutes and that life will go on if we don’t post something. So it’s obvious social media isn’t causing our pain points, but more times than not, being online doesn’t help them, either. When people tell me they’re deleting a social media app from their phone, it usually lasts a day before the need to check what they’re missing kicks into high gear. Thank you, #FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

In a study done a few years ago, researchers found that when you take away someone’s phone, they reported feeling anxious and that anxiety continued until they got their phone back. One of the people behind that study is Larry Rosen, professor emeritus and past chair of the psychology department at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Rosen’s been studying the “psychology of technology” for more than 30 years. For the study noted above, Rosen said the researchers studied more than 200 students to see how they used their phones. The students used an app called Instant, which tallied how many times they unlocked their phone each day and tracked how long the device remained unlocked.

“The 2016 study revealed students unlocked their phones 56 times a day for [a total of] 220 minutes. That means the students checked their phones about every 15 minutes for just shy of 4 minutes,” Rosen explains. “In 2017, we conducted the same study with a new, equivalent group of students and found the students unlocked their phones about 50 times but stayed on their phones longer. This time they spent a total of 262 minutes on their devices, which is 5.25 minutes per glance. The reason the students said they were spending more time on their phones when they unlocked them was because of social media.”

What Rosen found the most fascinating was why people logged onto social media in the first place. Half the time, participants said it was because they received an alert, so they unlocked their phone to see someone’s post, read a new comment or check a text. “The other half of the time, there wasn’t an update or alert, which means they had a slow accumulation of chemicals that signaled anxiety,” Rosen says. “When that reaches a critical level, people act on it and go back to their phones.”

The fear of missing out causes so many health issues that Rosen wrote an entire book about it: iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. He defines this disorder as the negative psychological impact of the use of technology, which can manifest as stress, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, among other mental health issues. Simply put, FOMO has taken over our social media habits.

So when did the very technology created to make our lives more efficient become the source of so much stress and distraction? It happened gradually over time and is only accelerating.

Four ways to back yourself out of the need to check-in

If you think you’re too attached to your digital device -- if your phone goes everywhere you go -- and you want to rewire your brain, Rosen suggests trying the following:

  1. Move all your social icons from your first page into a folder so you have to make an effort to find them.
  2. Check your apps on a schedule, not on a whim. Let everyone know you’re doing it so they don’t get pissed off when you take too long to “like” one of their posts.
  3. Pay attention to which apps are open in the background because we tend to check them unconsciously. If you’re not scheduled to check an app, make sure that tab is closed or the app is in its folder.
  4. Turn off all your alerts. You don’t need to know every time some­one posts something to your feed. It can wait.

It may seem silly to follow these steps because it may feel like your social media is controlling you and not the other way around. However, Rosen says they’re often necessary because social comparison is a very real thing that’s hurting a lot of people.

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