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A Wireless World with Strings Attached

by Laura Mittelman

art by Shelley Jone


“80% of Americans are taking a drug 15 times a day without realizing,” says New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize finalist Max Fisher [1]. The drug of choice? Social media. Fisher claims in his book, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World, that social media has the power to change the way we think, affect how we feel, disrupt our emotional balance, and cause us to completely alter our perception of reality—even while we are not actively using any social media platforms [1].

Social media is a rapidly growing advancement in technology: 2.7 billion users of social networks have been estimated worldwide [2]. It brings together different cultures, opinions, perspectives, and shared stories within a metaphorical world large enough to connect individuals across the globe, yet small enough to fit into our pockets. Whether you are an active user of social media, a passionate antagonist of all online social platforms, an online influencer, or have seen the popular Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, it is more than likely that you have encountered the ever-invigorating discourse on social media’s potentially harmful effects. Perhaps you even support the claim that the impact of social media on our society, our lives, and our youth is a great existential issue of our time. On the other hand, maybe you champion social media and view its ability to connect global citizens across long distances as so remarkable that it outweighs all the possible disadvantages social media can have on our well-being.

For some of us, social media use is tough to resist; nevertheless, social media has ingrained itself as a part of our social world and is not going anywhere anytime soon. Accordingly, it is important to understand its likely ability to affect our brains in ways of which we are not aware.

Researchers think the primary routes through which social media affects the brain are the mentalizing network (the core brain circuitry underlying one’s ability to understand or anticipate what others are thinking), the reward-value circuit (which is partly responsible for processing social stimuli in an online environment), and the connections between the emotional and cognitive centers of our brains [3–5]. While the roles of these brain systems in relation to the offline social world have already been studied extensively, researchers are still trying to piece together the puzzle that is social media’s effect on the nervous system [4]. One key question stands out: how does social media usage interact with the human brain on a structural level, and how does this in turn affect individual social behavior and thought, as well as social interaction within societies at large? Looking deeper into the underlying neuroscience may make you pause the next time you feel your pocket buzz.

The Online Universe: For Better or For Worse?

In 2018, the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists hosted a youth debate concerning their opinions on social media [6]. Among the many young debaters was an individual who claimed his smartphone and social media apps were his “heroin” and the “heroin of our generation.” This negative statement was met with a counter-argument by another debater: “this is my life line… it's the only way I have of keeping in touch with my family and friends.” Debates of this type play out regularly in modern times, with a recurring theme surrounding the benefits and hindrances of the social world at large [6].

At the core of concerns often raised about the potential drawbacks of digital socialization are well-being, impacts on personality traits (such as empathy), and the need for authentic and substantial social interaction [7]. Several studies have found correlations between heavy social media use and poorer emotional outcomes, including lower life satisfaction, internalization of negative experiences on the apps, attention deficits, anxiety, and depression [7]. However, there is no linear causal relationship between social media and mental well-being. Rather, research has highlighted a more nuanced relationship in which negative outcomes of social media use may be situation-specific [7]. The negative implications on well-being can vary depending on the social networking platform used; for example, there is variance in the social interactions associated with the majority of strangers seen on one’s TikTok “For You Page” and the highly curated “Following” feed on Instagram [7]. Moreover, among the most significant disadvantages of social media is the feeling of social isolation [8]. Similar to the youth debater’s anecdote where he described social media as his “lifeline,” social media may fulfill a more immediate, initial need for interaction. However, in the long run, this could lead to greater feelings of loneliness [8].

Nonetheless, social media can also serve as a powerful light in many people's lives through its unique ability to connect people in spite of geographical restraints and allow for the formation of new social connections [7]. In some surveys, more than half of adolescents report that social media improved their relationships with friends (52 percent) or allowed them to form new friendships (57 percent) [7]. Other heartwarming examples include the online communities built by and for individuals struggling with similar challenges in life. For example, niche internet circles for those with long-term medical conditions can provide supportive outlets beyond one’s immediate support system [9]. In this way, social media proves to be a productive community builder.

New psychological and neuroimaging studies suggest that social interaction via the internet influences neuroplasticity across three primary domains: attention, memory, and social cognition [10]. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to modify its structure and connectivity to adapt in response to new experiences [11]. However, these primary aspects of cognition are umbrella terms that encapsulate a wide range of characteristics, such as an altered capacity for divided attention, shifts in perception, decreased self-esteem, and increased reward processing [10]. Overall, the multidimensional analysis of the various positive and negative impacts social media can have on society at large is complicated and influenced by its omnipresence. The social media debate is polarizing and divided down the middle, which leaves it up to you, the user, to decide where you stand and how much time you want to dedicate to the various platforms.

Kiss Me Through The Phone

The evolutionary need to belong is a fundamental motivation that drives the desire for human attachment [12]. People fulfill this need to belong by seeking interpersonal interactions, maintaining relationships through contact, and managing their reputations [4]. This internal drive is likely derived from the basic biological need to enhance reproductive success and survival via interconnecting as a group to promote safety, communal effort, and attract potential mates [13].

From an evolutionary perspective, one’s ability to successfully assimilate into social circles in an effort to survive was determined by their social learning skills [14]. The human brain is wired to not only understand what other people think of us, but also to change ourselves to be more socially desirable and release chemicals that stimulate feelings of pleasure in response to positive social interaction [15]. Consider how social media has the ability to expand social circles by the thousands and increase the rate of social interactions by exponential amounts. This abundance of social stimuli mimics social interactions, possibly changing our brains in ways that we can’t control. The answers partially lie in the problem of human nature and our innate need to connect with one another, seek out social support, and pursue social goals that promote emotional well-being [16].

Additionally, it is widely accepted in the field of social psychology that sustaining successful social connections protects individuals from feelings of isolation, despondence, and depression [4]. However, the relationship between social connections and the satisfaction of fundamental social drives becomes more complicated in the context of social media. On digital platforms, emotional cues are muddled and mutual responsiveness is less frequent; this has led researchers to argue that our interpretations of online social interactions may be more subjective [17]. More specifically, the tools enabling us to like images and leave comments on others’ posts encourage purely quantitative social feedback, as opposed to the more qualitative and mutual endorsement of social values that comes with in-person interactions [17]. All in all, this could lead us to be particularly attuned to peer opinion and ground our motivations in solely quantifiable evaluations received on social media. The possible ramifications that accompany such outcomes could include warped self-image and altered social brain circuitries [17,18].

Some researchers suggest that individuals actively maintain their online reputation via five key behaviors: broadcasting information, receiving positive feedback, consuming others’ information, judging posted information, and participating in social comparison [4]. Underlying these mental processes are neural networks and brain systems responsible for encoding social needs and outcomes; these include mentalizing, self-referential cognition, and social-reward brain networks [4]. Mentalizing and self-referential cognition encompass the processing of information relevant to one’s role within an interpersonal setting [19]. The social-reward system helps us process social rewards, and is part of the brain network that processes other rewards, including food consumption, monetary gain via gambling, or the use of psychoactive drugs [20]. These brain circuitries are likely to be key in understanding social media’s ability to satisfy our social drives and examining the possibility of addiction to social media and any related psychological implications [4].

Empathizing With a Photo

Our sense of self is multi-faceted, curated by the dynamic coalescence of various environments, people, and experiences that we have been exposed and connected to throughout our lives [21]. Our sense of self can also be externalized and extend into our

understanding of how others perceive us [22]. This complex construction of social identity is thus rooted in the uniquely human ability to mentalize: the process of inferring, identifying, and detecting the thoughts and emotions of other individuals [23]. Self-mentalization, which allows us to contextualize our own mental states and emotions around how we believe others perceive us, is also reflected in how we approach our place within our social surroundings and interpersonal relationships [23]. Ultimately, these mental processes are prerequisites for enabling successful social interactions, and having positive interactions with others is evolutionarily advantageous in the interest of survival and reproduction [4,24]. To adequately achieve a positive social reputation, an individual’s mentalizing network processes the thoughts and emotions of others in an effort to alter their behavior to please surrounding social circles, therefore optimizing opportunities for social success [15].

Now reflect on how you might receive information on Instagram or Facebook when looking through other people’s posts and comment sections. Have you ever found yourself thinking about how they might be feeling, or attempting to infer their emotional and mental states based on the feedback they receive from other users on the platform? If you have, then you have actively engaged in the process of mentalization. Except, the catch here is that the social information that you were receiving through a small portable device is not the full picture. There is a high probability that the individual on the other side of the post has an emotional state that strays far from your interpretation.

With the rise of social media becoming a dominating outlet of social information for the more than seven billion active users around the world, how the digital age is influencing our mentalizing network and what effect it might be having on our sense of self is thought-provoking [25]. To further investigate these social-psychological processes, researchers have conducted neuroimaging studies that revealed insight into the brain structures that enable us to understand the mental states of ourselves and others [4]. The tests revealed that when thinking about other people’s intentions and feelings based on an online post, mentalizing activity takes place in three notable brain structures [4]. The first of these is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), located in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is generally associated with the higher-level cognitive functions seen in humans and other primates [26]. Due to its interconnection with the emotional centers of the brain, such as structures of the limbic system, the mPFC is also thought to be involved in a wide range of social cognitive tasks [26]. The next brain region is the superior temporal sulcus (STS), one of the larger sulci—or grooves—on the surface of the brain [27]. The STS has been implicated in a wide range of functionalities, including perceiving faces, biological motion, and voice [27]. These computations enable its role in the processing of others' actions and mental states, a hallmark of mentalizing circuitry [27]. The third brain structure that showed prominent activity during mentalization processes was the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), which lies between the temporal and parietal lobes [4]. The TPJ is necessary for wholly understanding others’ thoughts and beliefs [28]. Research has directly linked activity in all of these brain regions to social stimuli received via others’ shared information [29]. Moreover, it is likely that the TPJ specifically, and the mentalizing system more broadly, is associated with our attempt to understand the social thoughts and behaviors of others as we process information elicited by social media [4].

Interestingly, multiple studies have shown that social media can also affect the neuroplasticity of the brain regions associated with the mentalizing network. The ever-expanding follower count of online social circles can increase grey matter density, specifically in the STS [30]. Grey matter is one of two types of matter in the brain (the other being white matter) and consists of tightly packed neuronal cell bodies; as grey matter density increases, so too does the processing power in that region of the brain [31]. Therefore, it is possible that the dense, rapid, and one-dimensional social information we consume through social media is changing our brains by stimulating our mentalizing network.

One potential concern of social media is that it gives us unprecedented opportunities to compare ourselves to others as we endlessly scroll [18]. However, instead of comparing ourselves to real people, we're comparing ourselves to highly curated profiles, including counts and validating comments [32]. “We curate our lives around this perceived sense of perfection … and we conflate that with value … and truth. And instead what it really is, is fake, brittle popularity that’s short term and leaves you even more …vacant and empty before you did it,” says Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook [33]. He was responding to a question about his involvement in exploiting consumer behavior during a talk to students held at Stanford University [33]. The research validates Palihapitiya’s concerns. Studies show that individuals with the most chronic exposure to Facebook participate in more upward social comparison, the process through which individuals mentally compare themselves to those they believe are superior [18]. Moreover, the extent of upward social comparison appears to mediate the relationship between Facebook use and diminished self-esteem [18]. In a follow-up study, researchers showed participants fictitious profiles designed to spark comparisons on the basis of fitness, attractiveness, and social popularity [18]. They found that upward comparisons during these scenarios simulating social media use resulted in poorer self-image and self-evaluation—this highlights the unhealthy nature of the social environments created on these platforms [18]. Perhaps you have heard that social media is a highlight reel and that the misrepresentations could potentially lead to escalating feelings of negative self-representations and cycles of comparison. The specific ramifications of social media on our brain’s chemistry and structure are still being investigated as the social media era intensifies. However, our use of these platforms is likely altering our social brains in ways we can’t control, and could influence what social interaction looks like in the future.

Rewiring Your Emotions

You may have a favorite social media influencer who you follow for life tips and fashion tricks, or alternatively, a favorite sports player, entrepreneur, chef, or scientist whom you look up to and follow for advice. No matter which niche you position your online social self within, humans are naturally susceptible to influence and are evolutionarily programmed to seek it out [14]. We learn from each other through social interactions, which has allowed our species to develop advanced skills and adapt to our environments [14]. The ability to be influenced by others is the foundation of social learning and underlies successful social interactions and guides value-based decision-making [34]. Extrapolating this to social media, everyone from internet personalities to the average social media user has the ability to provide a source of social learning through their comments and posts, and in turn direct social motivations. However, it is important to consider how this is occurring in a new, artificial, highly accessible, and for-profit environment. Furthermore, the integration and internalization of influential social information have been highlighted in the processes of forming one’s own self-representation, beliefs, and self-awareness [14]. With the expanded social circles provided by the interface of social media platforms, online social learning scenarios could influence the sense of self, including social awareness and emotional regulation [14].

Human emotions are shaped by the networks and surroundings of people and environments we associate with, and our emotional expressions are accepted by others as a key social cue in both face-to-face and online interactions [35]. To look deeper into how social

media might be influencing human emotions and emotional well-being, researchers have analyzed more closely the role of the amygdala in social processing [30]. The amygdala, a region of the brain famously associated with emotions, is responsible for a much larger array of functions than given credit for [15]. With its close connection with the hippocampus and limbic system, it is a core brain region involved in social cognition networks and plays a prominent role in processing emotionally salient social values, memories, motivations, and identities [15]. It also holds a critical role in the brain’s social-cognitive neural networks, encoding socially abnormal cues and decision-making. Furthermore, through its close connection with dopaminergic neural projections to the brain’s reward centers, the amygdala helps to weigh social rewards and rejections [3,15].

The amygdala has previously been linked to the neural processing of social values in humans and other animals [3]. The possibility of the amygdala also influencing our online social behavior is intriguing [10]. As humans, we make value judgements based on potential social rewards, and these in turn guide our behavior [14]. Research has revealed that the amygdala encodes emotionally salient information as it relates to social reward, and is strongly implicated in tracking the subjective values of rewards [3]. Moreover, amygdala activity has been shown to correlate with the encoding of social value-based decision-making and the expectations of social outcomes [3].

The amygdala’s role in weighing social preferences suggests that it is also implicated in prosociality, a term describing behaviors intentionally carried out to benefit others [36]. More specifically, the neurotransmitter oxytocin may be responsible for the amygdala's role in integrating social reward values, which leads to prosocial behavior [3]. Oxytocin binds to receptors in the amygdala and therefore plays a prominent role in cognition, decision-making, and inference [3]. Researchers have found that increased oxytocin levels correlate with increased prosociality, which is coupled with the mentalization of positive social values relative to others [3]. Moreover, the same study found that after increasing the amount of oxytocin in the amygdala, imaging of the brain showed that there was greater activity in the

amygdala simultaneous to an increase in prosocial behavior [3]. Thus, it seems as though the amygdala may be particularly sensitive to perceiving positive social stimuli online, and is responsible for changed behaviors as a result.

Even more intriguing is the plasticity of the amygdala—as an individual’s online social network size grows, grey matter density in the amygdala also increases, thus expanding processing capability [30]. Above all other brain structures, amygdala volume has been found to be positively correlated with the complexity and size of human social networks, which further indicates the role of the amygdala in processing social values [37]. More specifically, the relationship between amygdala density and social network size supports the social brain hypothesis; this theory states that species that interact with larger social groups and foster more social relationships are naturally predisposed to possess larger, more densely packed social processing brain regions [37]. In other words, brain regions with a greater capacity to perform complex social computations are necessary adaptations for social species, including humans. This evolutionary imperative may clarify why the amygdala is so responsive to shifts in our online social networks [3,37]. Considering the complexity and pace of social media, it is possible that the heightened entanglement of social cues online, paired with the relentless stream of information forced onto social media users, will require the amygdala to increase its density in order to keep up.

This then begs the question of whether an increased amygdala size would alter our ability to successfully socialize face-to-face and maintain stable relationships, or even go as far as to affect other cognitive processes.

The Wiring of Reward

“I feel tremendous guilt,” admitted Chamath Palihapitiya during his Stanford talk in response to another question about his involvement in Facebook’s engineered user growth strategy. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he explained [33].

The pervasiveness of social media use and the hold such online platforms have on so many individuals’ lives can be concerning, especially considering its activation of the reward system [13,38]. Stimulating the reward system in response to social stimuli is an evolutionary mechanism adopted by the human brain to promote social interaction and contact for survival and reproduction [13]. Positive social interactions are rewarded by pleasurable feelings and neurochemical responses that motivate individuals to keep seeking more [39]. The key neurotransmitter underlying this reward is dopamine, a chemical produced by the brain that plays a prominent role in socially motivated behaviors [13].

There is a critical relationship between the brain’s reward-value system and social media use. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), a relevant neural correlate of the reward network, has shown to be heavily involved in the weighing of possible social and emotional benefits of engaging with social media [40]. Moreover, research has shown that processing social communication in online domains stimulates the brain’s reward circuitry, which includes brain structures such as the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA) [5]. At the core of the reward system are neurons that project from the VTA to the NAcc, where they release dopamine; this neurochemical activity leads to feelings of reward [41]. This primary circuit is intricately connected to other brain regions, including the amygdala and vmPFC [41]. The stimuli associated with receiving likes on one’s photos are translated into signals in this reward circuit. Stimuli enters the network and activates the VTA, which stimulates the NAcc and ultimately transmits that rewarding information to the vmPFC, which is responsible for mediating decision-making and weighing social reward versus cost [42,43]. Therefore, the experience of broadcasting information about oneself directly to others online elicits the feeling of being rewarded, which could be the driving force behind patterns of continued social media use [17,42]. Consider how programmers refer to the algorithms behind many social media platforms as “brain hacking” [44]. According to former Google product manager Tristan Harris, the addictive nature of using social media is carefully engineered to hold back likes so that they can be delivered all at once, garnering a bigger rush [44]. The end goal of this algorithm, of course, is to grab your attention for a little longer and give you yet another reason to check your phone and refresh your feed [44].

Given the way in which social media directly stimulates the reward system without requiring much social effort, it seems possible that individuals may start preferring online interactions over in-person socializing. This could further perpetuate patterns of isolation and loneliness [8]. Therefore, the overlap between the mentalizing and reward systems could be relevant to both the insecurity and continual desire for online approval that many individuals feel when using social media.

Next time you find yourself feeling the slightest of boredom, pay attention to where your mind wanders, and you might find yourself immediately reaching for your phone to check social media. Creators of these platforms, such as Facebook’s first president Sean Parker, have worked incredibly hard to trap you in this exact cycle. The “social-validation feedback loop” sends users a “little dopamine hit” and leaves them wanting more, as described by Sean Parker himself [45]. The discussion surrounding whether or not social media use is an addictive behavior is of growing interest in neuroscientific findings, but further research is required to develop a holistic explanation of social media and its neural correlation to chemical addiction [46].

Social media's effects are powerful, and while we don't know the extent of them, we shouldn't panic about social media addiction. The most useful tool that you can exercise is questioning your habits. Remind yourself of your phone’s ability to capture your attention by lighting up your reward system and ask yourself: “Is this really worth my time?”

Untangling Your Mind

Social media is here to stay, and it is critical that we remain aware of the possibility that social media may shape our brains in extremely tangible ways. It is vital to understand the science behind those effects in order for us to remain informed and intentional about how we interact with the platforms, ultimately pushing back on their ability to prey on our brain’s vulnerabilities. As the time we spend on social media begins to erode the time allotted for forming and maintaining physical social relationships, it is important that neuroscientists continue to uncover how stimuli from social platforms are integrated in the mentalizing system, emotion-regulating networks, and the reward-value circuitry in our brain [4]. It is essential to further research the benefits, costs, and implications of social media on the changing brain and the possible long-lasting brain activity alterations social media can evoke.


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