Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Social media may be damaging your brain

Executive Summary

Our regular social media checking on Facebook™, Twitter™, Instagram™, LinkedIn™, and Whatsapp™ may be permanently damaging our brain.

News, and social media in particular, revolves around the dramatic. So it changes our risk perception, making irrelevant appear important. It is superficial, preventing deep thoughts and creative work. It makes us passive, and prevents long–term memory formation.

Social media panders to our innate confirmation and narrative biases. It makes us polarised. It can cause release of stress hormones, and make us physically sick. It can be addictive by triggering dopamine release.

Read the article for an explanation of all these effects. There is a discussion on various behavioural biases, as well as a capsule on how addiction forms in our brains.

Your regular social media checking and watching television may be permanently damaging your brain. In this article, we will discuss some of those reasons.

“News is bad for you”

Rolf Dobelli, the author of a fascinating behavioural science book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, wrote an article claiming ‘News is bad for you‘. His article gave many social as well as medical reasons why news is bad for us. I had written an article on that topic in 2013.

However, now, we have a more expanded definition of news, which includes social media posts, such as those on Facebook™, Instagram™, Twitter™, YouTube™, LinkedIn™, and Whatsapp™. As a result, instead of referring to news, I will refer to social media posts and news, interchangeably.

Also, the world has changed post–Covid–19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. During the lockdowns, people are forced to stay indoors in different parts of the world. And, while there are other ways to communicate or get information, social media happens to be the most convenient ones.

Unfortunately, most of the stuff you get from well–meaning associates on social media is useless, if not downright wrong. But the bigger danger is the medical effects on you of this incessant social media exposure.

So I have updated this article to include these social media issues.

Why social media posts and news are bad

We will focus more on medical harm and less on social concerns.

Social media skews the risk perception

Social media misleads. I am not talking about fake news, which is purposely meant to misguide. I am referring to honest, real news.

Dobelli says that news changes the risk map in our minds.

Our brain always assigns probability to any event that we may encounter. This is a survival mechanism, developed as a part of evolution.

So, if our homo erectus ancestors in Pleistocene epoch in Africa were to hear any news about an attack by a sabre–toothed tiger on someone in Brazil, they would be extremely worried about similar thing happening to them.

Effectively, on hearing the news, their brains would assign a much higher probability to the event happening to them.

Fortunately, they would be living on a different continent, with a very different likelihood of an encounter. Yet, their brains would not be able to logically make a differentiation.

Centuries ago, we heard all news face to face. So, the local news was heard more often, which obviously had more relevance to us.

But, now, we hear global news, and reading about death tolls in Lombardi, Italy can creates a fear psychosis in Perth, Australia.

Social media is dramatic

News, inherently, has a Self-selection bias. ‘Nothing happened’ cannot be a news.

So, anything happening outside of the routine will become a news item. When you read it, your mind will not consider that millions of times, in similar situations, nothing happened. And, you will have a skewed perception of the probability of it happening.

So, though the event may have happened in your neighbourhood, and so be relevant, the likelihood of it may not be much.

If we read about how asbestos caused lung cancer in some region in central Indonesia, we worry about how we may get harmed by asbestos. In reality, the air pollution is far more likely to cause lung cancer for us.

Read here: Self-selection bias.

Social media is often irrelevant

We hear a lot of news stories, most of which are irrelevant to us.

Our mind is not good at discerning what is relevant. It can only discern what is new.

We see this all the time. People blithely eat junk food day in and day out, even when they know it is bad for them. But, they sound very alarmed if they read that statins are over–prescribed. None of their family members may be on statins. But, the newness of the news catches their attention.

This absolutely brilliant cartoon about Ebola virus by Jack Ohman explains my point.

Cartoon showing a guy holding beer can in one hand, a hamburger in another, with chips and soft drinks in front, while he screams with fear "ebola"
Jack Ohman, Copyright 2014 Tribune Content Agency. The image is linked only via a URL from the original website.

Social media is superficial

Dobelli says the real useful information is detailed; not small factoids garnered here and there.

Most of the social media posts are superficial facts, masquerading as news. Such news articles don’t delve into depth.

But, our brains cannot connect the dots from discrete news items. So, we are likely to miss the forest for the trees.

How many of scattered tidbits have you read about Covid–19? Are you able to connect any dots?

Should you wear a mask? Should you drink hot water every 2 hours? Can vitamin C boost your immunity enough? Is it safe to handle newspapers? And how long does the virus SARS–CoV-2 stay airborne?

You had read thousands of posts on Covid–19 but do you know the answer to any of the important questions above?

Social media can make you physically sick

News that is negative (which it mostly is) triggers our brain’s limbic system. This produces stress hormones —adrenaline and cortisol— that affect many body systems. While short term presence of these hormones is not a problem, their regular or continuous release causes various problems.

When you ‘consume’ social media regularly, the stress hormone levels stay high for a prolonged period. This is effectively like having chronic stress. It lowers immunity, impairs digestion, and inhibits release of growth hormones (affecting cell, hair, and bone growth). It also causes problems such as anxiety, depression, headaches, weight gain, sleep disorders, and problems with memory and concentration.

In short, over the long term, social media can make you physically sick.

Social media is addictive like a drug

Tell me about it! News acts like a drug, affecting the reward circuits in the brain. Let us see how addiction works.

How addiction works

Many activities, such as getting food, money, or sex, cause release of a neurotransmitter called Dopamine, in a part of the brain called nucleus accumbens.

This dopamine causes a flow of neural stimulation signals to different parts of the brain. When they flow to hippocampus, a memory of the original activity is formed. When they flow to amygdala, the brain starts giving a conditioned response to that particular activity. This is the mechanism of Pleasure.

When the dopamine release is more, the dopamine interacts with another neurotransmitter called Glutamate. This transmitter is involved in the motivation and memory circuitry of the brain. Thus, motivation and memory get connected with pleasure. This is the mechanism of Reward.

When any substance, such as a drug or alcohol, causes even more dopamine release, usually 5–10 times the normal levels, the pleasure and reward circuitry gets flooded with dopamine, and gets overwhelmed.

If this happens for a long time, the brain reduces dopamine production, as well as removes some receptors that attach to dopamine. This is equivalent of the body causing numbness due to excess pain. It is the brain’s coping mechanism.

When this happens, the brain’s pleasure and reward center seeks more of the original substance to get the same high level of dopamine. This causes the person to crave the original source of the stimulus. This is the mechanism of Addiction.

Read: Understanding Addiction.

The social media news stimulates the brain’s pleasure and reward circuitry. Over a period of time, the brain develops addiction to social media posts.

Thus, social media changes your brain permanently, by altering its pleasure and reward center connections, the memories laid down in hippocampus, and response mechanism in amygdala.

All in all, you get addicted to your mobile and TV. As addicted as an alcoholic, or a drug junkie.

If you refuse to believe this, try staying off your social media accounts for 24 hours. Don’t worry; the world will not end while you are away from your mobile phone.

Social media hampers deep thinking

The more news you watch, the more are the brain circuits dealing with skimming and multi-tasking exercised and those involved with deep thinking weakened. Your attention span lowers. You cannot even read long articles (including this!).

Now you know why your children cannot concentrate on their studies. Read on this website: Mobile phone use reduces academic performance in children.

By the way, this has happened to me personally. I used to be able to read big books comfortably. Nowadays, I find it hard to read more than 10–15 pages of a book at a stretch. I should follow my own advice, given in this article. 🙂

Social media leads to confirmation bias

Our thinking process is not perfectly objective. It involves many behavioural biases that make us take wrong decisions.

News panders to Confirmation bias, which arises when our brain seeks news that support our already existing views.

For example, if you believe that all medical drugs are bad for health, you are more likely to read news reports that show some new side effects of medicines. And if you believe conspiracy theories of 5G–testing or biological warfare to have caused Covid–19, you will find many cogent articles and videos on how they were executed.

Read here: What is confirmation bias?

Social media leads to narrative bias

Story bias, or Narrative bias, occurs because our mind tries to see patterns in any information, and find reasons for those patterns. This is because it is difficult to remember a lot of data, but much easier to remember a simple formula or a relationship.

For example, it is difficult to remember data about our blood pressures every morning (if we were to check daily), and whether we slept properly the previous night. So the mind tries to remember a condensed version such as: “whenever I don’t sleep properly, my blood pressure is much higher the next day”.

While this might be true on a few occasions, it may not be true in a statistically significant way.

This arises because our minds seek Heuristics —a shortcut method, or a rule— that can help make quick and efficient judgements and decisions.

The problem is not with the need for heuristics; it is with the assumption that there exists a pattern, or a rule, underlying every data set.

Often, news does not just give us information; it also tries to explain ‘why’. After all, that is what makes a news headline catchy. But, often, the ‘why’ is not properly known.

When our mind seeks to find the ‘non–existent why’, we fall prey to narrative bias.

“Lung cancer rising in poor neighbourhoods” may be the news. But the reporter might add an interpretation, ‘rising in poor neighbourhoods, perhaps because of increased smoking among poor people”.

While this appears fully logical, and our minds think we understand, the real reason for increasing lung cancer may be the rise in air pollution, which affects poor people more as they have to spend more time outdoors. As a result, we miss the real reason, in our rush to find an explanation or a narrative.

The way to find the real reason is to do more deep thinking or reading. On deeper reading, you may find that more and more lung cancer cases are of adenocarcinoma, which is the type of lung cancer mainly caused by air pollution.

The type of lung cancer caused by smoking is squamous cell carcinoma, which is the cancer of the airways of the lungs. The hot tobacco smoke irritates those airways, unlike the air pollutants that trigger lung cancer differently. But people who want quick news will not spend time on this.

Read here: What is Narrative Bias?

Social media wastes your time

If you spend a few minutes a few times throughout the day, the total may add up to an hour or even more.

We humans are not automatons. So, when we switch our minds to a news item, we have to keep aside our thought process about the work we were doing.

When we come back to work, we again have to keep aside the news, and re–gather all the bits of work–related information to restart our task. This process takes a few precious minutes, each time we switch.

As a result, our innocuous–looking social media breaks add up to a significant chunk of wasted time.

We are probably wasting more than 10–15% of our working time in accessing all the social media stimuli, such as checking our Facebook™, Instagram™, Whatsapp™, Twitter™, and LinkedIn™ accounts, besides the TV.

Social media inhibits real learning

Our brains learn by connecting the dots. This needs longer spans of concentration.

On the other hand, news interrupts. So it reduces concentration and deep thinking. Muddled and superficial learning is the outcome.

Social media inhibits long–term memory formation

Our brains have three types of memories: sensory, short–term, and long–term.

Read how memories are formed, on this website: Early warning signs of dementia.

When we first sense something, through our five senses, it is stored for a very short duration as a sensory memory. How we felt when we learned that news, for example.

That sensory memory gets stored as a short–term memory, a sort of summary of those inputs. This frees the sensory organs to get further inputs, overwriting the earlier inputs. So, most of what we read, or hear, is temporarily stored in the short–term memory.

The relevant part of the short–term memory gets transferred to the long–term memory. This entire process is called Consolidation and needs an absence of interference from other stimuli.

Read: How do short–term memories become long–term memories?

News, unfortunately, keeps offering new stimuli. This impairs consolidation and formation of long–term memory. This can also result in forgetfulness.

Social media makes you passive

Sometimes, news is extreme, such as the huge human death toll in the Covid–19 pandemic. Since news media are in the business of gathering eyeballs, news focuses on most dramatic parts of the tragedies.

Since we cannot do anything about such events, we get what psychologists call Learned Helplessness. This can further lead to passive or disinterested behaviour, and eventually depression.

Next time you see that Whatsapp™ video clip of someone jumping off a building terrace to commit suicide, be warned. Unknowingly, you are heading one step closer to catching depression.

Social media kills creativity

It hard to ascribe creativity to any specific behavioural pattern. But, broadly, it needs our brains to have uninhibited thinking to pursue new ideas. The more news we consume, the more rigid ideas we may form, limiting the creative thinking.

It has been observed that when one is young, his mind is not thickset on opinions. As one ages, due to life experiences, the brain starts getting more rigid and fixated on views. That is why more youngsters are creative compared to adults. Don’t we say that elderly people are too rigid in their opinions?

Since it takes years to gather personal life experiences, it used to take decades for people to develop rigid mindsets.

However, with bombardment of news, these experiences come second–hand but at a rapid rate. The resultant risk is people can lose their creativity much faster, or earlier in life, than they would otherwise.

Finally, there are many more disadvantages of social media, that Rolf Dobelli does not mention, but I will take the liberty to discuss.

Social media makes your opinions more polarised

In the good old days, your world was localised to a smaller region.

So, if you had some whacky opinions, such as ‘the earth is flat, and not round’, you would have to keep your crazy opinion to yourself, as everyone around you would laugh at your views.

But, these days, with the advent of social media and global news, you can easily find people around the world who also believe in similar ideas.

Did you know that there exists a global association of people, who actually believe that ‘the earth is flat’?. Just google: “The Flat Earth Society”. I don’t even want to give you a link to that website and lower my page’s ranking in search engines.

With modern social media, you can connect to such people, scattered around the world. Since you get reinforcement from others, your weird view about the earth being flat gets reinforced and entrenched. In turn, you get more emboldened, and extreme in your views.

Counterpoint

Here are a couple of articles that provide counter–arguments to the Rolf Dobelli’s article. However, since these articles focus on social, non-medical reasons why news is good, or not bad, I am just mentioning them here for your perusal.

Read: News is bad for you? Here are 9 reasons why that idea is flat wrong.

Read: Rolf Dobelli’s ideas about not needing news are dangerous.

Now, can you believe how hard it was for me to write this whole article, keeping aside my mobile phone and social chats on it? Phew!

Actionable tips

  1. Avoid all social media posts and news, except in your field of work.
    At least, set a goal to limit your social media exposure, duration, and frequency of use.
    It is advisable not to use social media for long stretches of time, if you need to do creative or deep thinking.
  2. When using social media, ask yourself:
    Is this something I really need to worry about?
    How much is the real risk in my case?
    Am I reading this only because I believe in it?
    Should I trust only the data, or also the conclusions?
    Am I reading this for learning, or only for entertainment?
    Is this detailed enough to learn from?
  3. If you are reading any social media post with FOMO (fear of missing out), you are actually addicted to social media.
    Figure out a way to de–addict yourself.

First published on: 15th April, 2013

Image credit: Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay.

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