Social Media: How much is too much?

In the digital age, many opportunities are waiting to be uncovered right at our fingertips, and it can be overwhelming yet exhilarating just how many topics one can explore on social media. Though the good is readily apparent, social media users are subjected to a number of harmful effects brought on by tech and social media companies, but knowing the root of the issue and what it means for users can help create a safe and healthy relationship with social media and personal tech.

The root can be found in the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for motivation, memory, attention and arousal, and though it is often blamed for being the cause of social media “addiction,” it is rather a manipulable function reacting to external and excessive stimuli. Dopamine is vital in human survival, and essentially means we are motivated to do things because there is promise of reward, so this means that dopamine isn’t the root issue, it is the lack of containment of the stimuli.

A literal or perceived lack of dopamine in the brain causes one to seek the rush they get from “feel-good chemicals.” Social media is not officially classified as an addiction though, which is why navigating language around excessive social media usage can be tricky, because saying something along the lines of being “chronically online” or “having a social media addiction” creates a false sense of helplessness, and some people, like informative YouTuber Shanspeare, argue that the term “chronically online” can be harmful to people who legitimately struggle with chronic illnesses that are life-threatening.

Research by the National Library of Medicine based on 2020 data states that with the use of extensive screen time, there is an increase in ADHD-like symptoms, an impairment of emotional and social intelligence, social isolation and development. However, the research also states that usage may improve the ability to multitask, and increase abilities in other cognitive functions. The relationship between internet usage and the brain is still unclear because its strengths could easily become its weakness and vice versa. A 2018 Common Sense Media infographic on teens and social media shows a significant change from 2012 data, such as that teen’s value in face-to-face communication dropped by 17%, while there was a 9% increase in desire to communicate through social media and an 8% increase in desire to communicate through video-chatting. Since the data is about four years old and predates the pandemic, it can be rightfully assumed that value of face-to-face contact has decreased more. The same infographic shows that 43% of teens deleted a social media post because it didn’t get enough likes and, again, 43% of teens feel bad about themself if nobody comments or likes their posts. 

Social media and tech companies use auditory and visual cues to hook a user’s attention, and with features like the endless scroll that provide infinite possibility for reward, users find themself taking part in the activity of “doom scrolling”. Recognizing this process can help users realize that what these companies profit off of is the users’ attention. This is why it feels addictive, but it is really the manipulation of the brain’s natural function. 

However, social media is not all bad– in fact, it has been the catalyst for much significant change, and has been used in fun ways to stay connected, make friends, get educated, spark political movements, and gain creative inspiration. So, many ask: How much is too much?