Stressed Out By Social Media? Here's Why
Social Media is waging a war on your brain. As Forbes has noted, “IQs have lowered in this incredible era of technology,” with intelligence seemingly peaking with those born during the mid-1970’s — and a steady decline in IQ after that.
The internet — or how it is being used and misused — is causing us to exist in an almost permanent state of stress, and eroding our ability to concentrate, to carry out tasks, and to make “reliable decisions.” “It’s also taking a toll on our emotional intelligence,” says Forbes, “as we become victims of decision fatigue from too much technological stimulation.”
This is not an accident or a flaw in the system but, rather, a design feature to keep you hooked. One study in 2020 found that Facebook “privileges incendiary content, setting up a stimulus–response loop that promotes outrage expression.” YouTube, the same study found, also pushes consumers away “from mainstream content to more incendiary media” and away from more politically “centrist views” towards the extreme left or right.
The point, of course, is to keep you on these platforms by keeping you emotionally hyped up — and anger is the easiest way to achieve that. That’s good for social media giants but it’s bad for your intelligence, emotional well-being, and — very possibly — your brain health.
Decades-long studies on the effect of stress on the brain show that the prefrontal cortex (the most recently evolved part of the human brain, responsible for our higher cognitive abilities, including judgment, insight, planning, and decision-making) is weakened. Instead, older parts of the brain become dominant.
The “evolutionarily ancient” hypothalamus triggers the release of hormones from the pituitary and adrenal glands, elevating blood pressure and sending the heart racing. If the stress persists, and the older parts of the brain remain in control, individuals can loose control of their impulses, and may find themselves binge eating or consuming excessive amounts of alcohol or drugs. If it continues for weeks (or possibly only days), the brain itself begins to change (and to degenerate). As one study found:
“Chronic stress appears to expand the intricate web of connections among neurons in our lower emotional centers, whereas the areas engaged during flexible, sustained reasoning—anything from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant to calculus—start to shrivel. Under these conditions, the branching, signal-receiving dendrites in the primal amygdala enlarge, and those in the prefrontal cortex shrink. John Morrison of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and his colleagues have shown that prefrontal dendrites can regrow if the stress disappears, but this ability to rebound may vanish if the stress is especially severe.”
How To Take Back Control and De-Stress
Since long-term stress can cause problems with reasoning and judgment (as well as serious health problems), it’s essential that you build a de-stressing regime into your daily or weekly life. Here are some practical steps you can take:
- Limit your social media time. Check your messages and scroll for a minute if you want. Then sign off.
- When you’re on social media, avoid arguing with people over politics. (When people post biased articles or memes, they aren’t looking for a conversation and they don’t want to know the other side of the argument. They simply want to show what team they identify with and to get some applause from fellow believers.)
- Delete social media apps from your phone. You don’t need to be getting “updates” all day long, or checking social media just because you have two minutes downtime. Take that time to decompress, relax, and just “be in the moment.”
- Do something physical that takes you away from the computer, laptop, or smartphone: Go out for a walk, work out, or do something with your hands (journaling, painting, or building something).