article7 min read

How does social media affect our brain?

Although psychology and neuroscience are beginning to provide a new language for it, the idea that the use of technologies alters our thoughts and social existence is a long attested one. For instance, upon sitting down at his typewriter the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche remarked, “our writing tools are also working on our thoughts”. In the 1960s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan argued that technological mediums shape and regulate “the scale and form of human association and action”. Emerging from this lineage is neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, who, writing in 2013, feared the effects ‘Facebook Home’ and it’s “wizardry” has “on shaping our minds – and hence most significantly, how we view ourselves”.

In light of Greenfield’s portend, two serious questions arise that directly affect today’s young people and future generations whose lives may be inseparable from interactive technologies. How are technologies “shaping our minds” – positively? negatively? And, if they are doing so harmfully, how do we curtail negative effects?

The bad news

For starters, Greenfield thinks the universalisation of social media through readily accessible, handheld technologies reshapes our sense of selfhood. She proclaims,

The ‘you’ externally constructed by Facebook, accentuated further by the latest operating system, may not allow much time and opportunity for internal memories to mature, nor private reflections to develop into a fully-fledged, individual mind. But if you now define yourself externally by the instant thumbs-up from others, then abolition of privacy is to be welcomed in order to belong, and for a new type of identity to flourish – one that is hyper-connected and collective.

Instead of the centred ‘I’, Greenfield suggests Facebook remodels selfhood, rendering it a socially contingent construct. The stable pre-Facebook “I” is fragmented, self-conscious of and subject to the innumerable eyes of others, behaving only in order to impress. The value of behaviour is quantifiable by the self-defining ‘thumps-ups’ received from others, which dis/approve of actions and thus set ‘cultural display rules’, directing the user’s future behaviour. The drive to conform arises from a need to ‘belong’, an innate human craving that Facebook merely intensifies by presenting it as easily attainable. Greenfield notes that the fallout from the pursuit of belonging is the ‘abolition of privacy’ that, in effect, represents the culmination of the ‘I’s’ decomposition into the ‘you’.

As the ‘you’ dominates, social comparison is intensified. Facebook mostly presents images of people having fun and looking their best, misrepresenting reality by excluding banalities and sadness. Being social animals who are programmed to compare ourselves to our peers, we are prone to compare our own lives to those on the screen. Much more so than if we are in a positive mood, when we’re in a negative mood we tend to perceive our own lives as lacking or somehow deficient in comparison to those deceptively selective Facebook projections. This can lead to negative rumination that perpetuates negative emotion as we form cognitive conceptualisations of our own lives as inadequate or inferior. If such a process goes unimpeded, self-limiting core beliefs can be established that seriously jeopardise wellbeing and achievement.

In part, it is Facebook’s condition of hyper-connectedness – the gaze on and from others – that changes the way we think about ourselves, how we behave and interact, which leads us to prioritise attention, approval, and belonging over the more private, individualistic pursuits prized in bygone years. Greenfield laments the impact social media communication’s instantaneousness has on notions of selfhood and interaction.

If we’re going to be living in a world where face-to-face interaction, unpractised as it is, becomes uncomfortable, then such an aversion to real life, three-dimensional communication combined with a more collective identity, may be changing the very nature of personal relationships themselves. The speed required for reaction and the reduced time for reflection might mean that those reactions and evaluations themselves are becoming increasingly superficial.

These changes to selfhood and the ease of technologically-mediated forms of communication have ramifications on what Greenfield calls ‘face-to-face’ interaction. The instantaneousness of statement and response over social media platforms doesn’t allow for full reflection and critical cognition, which is overridden by the urge to interact now or never, the urge to be present and ‘belong’. Without ample time for reflection, responses become more superficial, more reactionary and unsubstantiated. Greenfield fears that Facebook engenders communication governed by minute-to-minute impulse, ‘not allowing much time and opportunity for internal memories to mature, nor private reflections to develop into a fully-fledged, individual mind’. Social media and the forms of technology through which they are delivered, for Greenfield, create an environment that diminishes our faculty for critical thought – a faculty that arguably makes us who we are.

On one level there can be no doubt that social media is changing the way we interact. But is it detrimentally changing who and how we are as a result? Well, research around neuroplasticity and epigenetics suggests that if we frequently practice a certain activity or behaviour this makes structural changes to our brain over time, forming and strengthening new neural connections. And so the interminable pressure to curate a self, belong, and respond immediately and appropriately to avoid peer censure inflicted via Facebook may well result in increased anxiety and stress that, if unregulated, can lead to mental health problems over time. This can be particularly damaging during a young person’s formative years where core beliefs about one’s self are established.

Yet Greenfield’s assessment seems dramatic. She describes a “generation of 20-somethings still living at home, wearing ‘onesies’… playing mythical or sci-fi games with simplified values of all-good and all-evil… craving the attention of others”. One might contend that such a depiction is as ‘simplistic’ and ‘reductive’ as the values of those videogames. And some researchers have.

The good news

Neuroscientists Pete Etchells and Chris Chambers argue against Greenfield’s claims, emphasising that studies into ‘screen time’ – the amount of time spent per day using screen-based technology – show very little impact on children’s behaviour. Making a distinction between the medium and the message, they cite examples of videogames that have been used to help cancer patients understand their illness and burn patients redress their wounds as examples of positive content subverting a negatively stigmatised form. Although these aren’t social media technologies per se, Etchells and Chambers show how interactive technologies aren’t essentially malignant and can even be therapeutic.

The issue here is that both Greenfield and her opposition present valid points; Facebook is radically modifying the way we communicate and our self-perception, but interactive technologies aren’t always wicked in their ‘wizardry’.

How might we resolve this?

The answer comes in the form of something we’ve really known all along: what matters is not entirely the technologies themselves, but who makes them, who uses them and how they use them.

In and of themselves, technologies are not moral or ethical entities, but the humans who use them are. Although, as Greenfield notes, “the interaction between the brain and the environment is a two-way dialogue” in which Facebook influences certain behaviours, our only option in everyday practice is to focus on the other end of that dialogue, on what we can change: the way we use technology. In the 1950s, German philosopher Martin Heideggar realised that “the machine is completely unautonomous, for it has its standing only from the ordering of the orderable”. In other words, technology has no power to manipulate, it only manipulates through our manipulation of it. We would do well to remember this in the 21st century.

What we must do, therefore, is constantly critique the way we consume and use technology, understanding how it might make lasting changes to the way we think, feel, and behave through neuroplastic processes, and halt degenerative use when spotted. We must understand, in Greenfield’s words, that “we are not inviolate”, that changes are occurring. If we do this, alongside teaching young people best-practice online and improving their understanding of the existential, psychological and neurobiological effects of screen time, we might guard against Greenfield’s fatal vision of the future, living in harmony with technology.

Etchells and Chambers, in

Baroness Susan Greenfield, in

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