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  • Writer's pictureVy Tran

The Social Virus: How Social Media Rewires Our Brains and What We Can Do About It

Before the pandemic, I had a healthy relationship with social media. I was able to be with my friends in person, the way humans are supposed to interact with each other. I didn’t have to use a screen to interact with other people. But the pandemic took that from me.

I am a current Computer Science undergraduate student studying at George Mason University. Over the last year, I have found myself easily drawn to social media, and sometimes I’ve struggled to use it in a way that benefits rather than hurts me. And that’s only the conscious side of things. It’s important for us to understand things that social media is doing to us that we might not even know about. We’ve all heard that social media is harmful for our mental health, but have you ever taken the time to learn why?

As you might expect, social media use in the United States increased during the COVID-19 pandemic — but notably, only by seven minutes. It is perhaps even more interesting that many tech companies have reported their users’ increasing disregard for “time well spent.” In the tech world, the concept of “time well spent” fuels a culture in which technology does not seek to exploit users’ vulnerabilities, including in ways that may lead to addictions. But despite tech companies’ efforts in this area, Americans have been spending even more time on their devices.

Despite what your mom may say, those hours spent on a screen are certainly not all wasted. Social media can be a place to stay informed and keep in touch with your friends and family. But as we all know, social media can be deleterious to one’s mental health.

It goes without saying that social media can be addictive, but many may not understand how social media addiction can come to be. It works this way: when an individual gets a notification, the brain receives a dopamine rush and sends it along reward pathways. This results in a feeling of pleasure. As noted by the Addiction Center, social media is particularly effective at providing plenty of dopamine rush-creating rewards for “relatively minimal effort.” As the brain becomes accustomed to receiving this dopamine, its tolerance increases, and increasingly more dopamine is needed to satisfy and please it. Ultimately, social media causes the brain to rewire itself around this need for more social-media-induced dopamine.

Not only is social media addictive, but it can cause profound harm to individuals’ self-esteem. Amidst all the chaos of the last year, social media has remained a constant. The Addiction Center reported that on social media, people talk about themselves around 80% of the time on social media, notably compared to only 30-40% of the time in real life; people’s highlight reels are on display for all to see. Research has demonstrated a clear link between social media use, poor mental health, and low self-esteem.

Pre-pandemic, I largely used social media as a way to stay connected with my friends and family. But slowly, social media changed from a way I could keep in touch with my loved ones to a place I compared myself to others online. I can’t help but feel pangs in my self-esteem sometimes when I scroll through social media.

Many are reaching a breaking point during this pandemic. It also cannot be overstated that the trauma we have collectively experienced during this pandemic won’t just go away ⁠when we all go back to our campuses in the fall. So, while I’m still an undergrad⁠ — and by the way, I am not qualified to provide official medical advice!⁠ — I want to offer some potential tips for how we young people can have a better relationship with social media during this time.

Tip #1: Move around more. It could be something as simple as taking a walk or stretching to a full-body workout. Activity helps create a distraction from social media and helps improve your overall health.

Tip #2: Avoid using your phone at night. I try to do this as much as possible, but I definitely still struggle with it! Using your phone at night will negatively affect your circadian rhythm, an internal process your body has to regulate sleep, in return causing many health problems, including depression. But in addition to the blue light, simply stated, it can be much harder to fall asleep if you see something that makes you unhappy. Negative feelings and nagging stressors can easily distract you if you’re attempting to clear your mind and fall asleep.

Tip #3: Remember that you are not alone in facing the struggles the pandemic has forced upon us. Even more specifically, if someone appears from their social media to be absolutely just fine right now — during the pandemic, before, or long after this time in history has passed--the chances are extremely high that they’re not.

More often than not, social media is a place for people to share the best of what’s going on in their lives. That doesn’t make them evil! It’s just something to keep in mind while you’re scrolling. Remember, you’re more than just a highlight reel.

Having a better understanding of how social media is affecting your brain can help you clearly address when you’re demonstrating symptoms of addiction. Understand the science, and you’ll have a better relationship with this vital tool — it won’t be exiting our lives anytime soon.

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