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September 14, 2022

How Social Media Impacts the Brain

Post By:
Dr. Julie Radlauer-Doerfler, LMHC
In-House Contributor
Guest Contributor:

Did you know that 88.2% of the US population utilizes social media? Unfortunately, research demonstrates that active social media users of all ages report greater mental distress than their inactive counterparts.

We’ve all been through a lot in the past few years, and for many, social media has been a way to connect with others when we are not sure if we should connect in person. For people struggling to foster pandemic-era friendships, social media has helped some of them feel less isolated. But how reliable is that feeling?

There is important research around the concept of strong ties and weak ties. In order to stay healthy, humans need three to five significant relationships (strong ties). Weak ties, on the other hand, are connections that we build through networking. Social media serves as a platform to build weak ties. The danger is when we forsake real-world relationships for virtual connections. Research indicates those relationships of the highest quality, which last the longest, tend to be the ones where you see each other face to face.

In short: social media offers a cheap substitute for authentic connection, and it’s taking a toll on our mental health. But that’s barely scraping the surface of the impacts of social media.

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As these platforms command more of our attention, our families may be the ones to suffer.

According to the World Health Organization, depression and anxiety have increased by 25% in the past two years. While this is largely due to the pandemic, many of the changes were already in motion prior to Covid and resulted in a lack of social connection. In the short term, social media platforms were useful and necessary; however, in the long term, continued heavy usage (more than 3 hours per day) resulted in the increased mental health conditions we are seeing today. 

People often ask: how does social media result in depression? While there are some obvious reasons, like strong and weak ties, there are also some physiological reasons that we should be aware of. Not to get all science-y on you, but this is how social media impacts the brain:

  • The average person spends over 3 hours on their phone each day, including approximately two and a half hours on social media. Have you tracked your usage lately?
  • Research shows that doing anything repeatedly for extended amounts of time causes physiological changes in the brain. (That’s how habits form!)
  • Social media does something called “capture and scatter” to your attention, meaning when we hit refresh, constant new information enters your brain. Thus, you are constantly excited and rewarded to see new information and posts. This is why we reach for our phone to check our messages and notifications so frequently.
  • Heavy social media users perform worse on cognitive tests, lose their ability to multitask, need to exert more effort to stay focused, and actually lose memory. In fact, heavy social media use actually shrinks parts of the brain and affects the neuroplasticity abilities of the brain.
  • Further, social media makes you addicted to your screens. It provides immediate rewards in the form of a dopamine release (the happy hormone) every time you post or get a notification from the app. This constant barrage of shallow rewards rewires your brain to want more of what caused that dopamine release, which leads to social media addiction. 
  • When your brain does not get the dopamine release it craves, you experience sadness.

There are multiple studies looking at the brain and what social media usage looks like.

Studies show that the brain scans of heavy social media users look very similar to those addicted to drugs or gambling. Further, those who use multiple social media platforms have substantially higher odds of having increased levels of both depression and anxiety symptoms (Primack,, 2018). In fact, “the greater your level of Facebook addiction, the lower your brain volume. MRI brain scans of Facebook users demonstrated a significant reduction in gray matter in the amygdala correlated with their level of addiction to Facebook. The erosion of brain matter is similar to the type of cell death seen in cocaine addicts.” (He, Turel & Bechara, 2017)

What parents should know.

All of this information is overwhelming (and frankly, scary) for parents as we try to navigate how our children will grow up safely in today’s day and age. Parents need to understand that children watch us to see how to behave. If we are walking around with our phones glued to us at all times, our children think this is acceptable behavior in the home. It is easier said than done to leave the phones on the counter or away out of sight, especially as many parents continue to stay connected to work in the evening or choose to reach out to family and friends when they are not working. There is no right or wrong strategy for how to manage this time-- only what is right for your family. 

What do the statistics say about how social media affects children?

While social networks do connect us, they often also distract us from connecting with those right in front of us, leaving many feeling disconnected and isolated.  In fact, 32% of children report feeling “unimportant” when parents use their phones during meals and family time.

Parental use of mobile devices during playtime with their children can lead to significant levels of child distress. A study of 50 infant-mother pairs indicated that infants showed greater unhappiness, fewer positive emotions, and were significantly less likely to play with toys when their mothers looked at their devices for as little as 2 minutes (Myruski et al, 2017).

According to the National Institute of Health’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, children who reported more than two hours of screen time per day got lower scores on IQ, thinking, and language tests. 

Because of this, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their media guidelines for younger children, taking into consideration that neural pathways are forming in younger years and translate into later developmental results. These guidelines include:

  • For children under 18 months, no screen time.
  • For children 18-24 months, parents should choose only high-quality media and watch it with their child.
  • For children 2-5 years, less than one hour per day of high-quality programming is recommended with parental supervision.

So, what can we do about this?

Perhaps these statistics make you feel like there is nothing we can do to overcome this fast-moving bullet train of technology. Relax and take a deep breath; there is some good news. In a 2020 study, just one month away from Facebook led to a significant improvement in emotional well-being. Researchers studied over 1,600 American adults who used Facebook for one hour each day, and deactivating their Facebook accounts led to a major increase in emotional well-being, including a reduction in loneliness and an increase in happiness (Allcott et al, 2020).

What I love about this study is that it shows how we can detoxify our minds and move forward from there. Perhaps this looks like deleting the apps from your phone. Or maybe for you, just removing the notifications will help. For others, allowing themselves scheduled times of the day for a social media check-in will do the trick. 

If these data points have troubled you, make a plan and do something about it. For me, I turned off my social media notifications. I also have made a commitment to putting the phone away in the evening to spend time with my three teenage boys (you can imagine how happy they are about that).

Some practical tips:

  • Do a check in to see how you and your children are connecting with social media. With one of my sons, I started the conversation with “show me what you’re watching on TikTok”.  Then I shared something that I found funny on Facebook (yes, I aged myself) and we had a good laugh.
  • Talk about frequency… and practice what you preach. If your phone is in your hand most of the time, don’t expect that your children will do anything differently. Since I have teens, we worked together to identify how much time we should be using social media, and then assessed whether our actual daily use was exceeding that standard.. Yes, we use it for work… yes, we are adults… yes, we pay for the service and the phones… and YES, we can all be more present! 
  • Moderation is the key- we are all probably addicted at this point, so doing something different will be hard. Go slow, be kind to yourself, be a good role model for the behavior you want to see, and celebrate the success. 
  • Assess usage and purpose. Different people are using social media differently. Are you/they watching videos, or actively involved and posting regularly? Talk about how social media makes them feel- connected or anxious? Ask them if they wished they were doing something differently around their social media input and output. Is social media taking away from offline activities, like exercise or sleeping? Are they online because they want to be, or because they feel like they have to be?
  • Identify alternative ways to connect. Rather than everyone going their separate ways in the evening, schedule a walk in the neighborhood or family game night- yes, even my teens were up for family game night, with actual board games. 

Ultimately, social media is here to stay, so we need to find a way to balance the benefits and risks associated with it. Our world has become more accessible, and we can connect with people near and far. It’s important to keep in mind that we need to focus on living in the tangible world as well as the virtual world. Having authentic connections with people will support better mental health. 

Some additional resources about social media:

Family Resource Center (Child Mind Institute)- Media Guidelines for Kids of All Ages

NetSmart- Child online safety

Parent’s Ultimate Guide from Common Sense Media