9 March 2020

We hear a lot about social media being bad for our mental health. But what if the problem isn’t just the technology itself, but us too? What if our brains just haven’t evolved to cope with social media?

Dr Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist, suggests that social media is fundamentally changing the way that we build and maintain relationships, and that this has some serious implications for our old brains.

When we use social media, we can update hundreds of people about what we are doing, all at once and with very little effort.  “The problem is relationships aren’t supposed to be efficient like this” says Dr Machin. “If we try and have efficient social relationships, the quality goes down, and the costs – particularly in relation to your physical and mental health – go up.”

Why do these efficient social interactions affect our mental health?

To understand this we have to take a quick dip into some brain chemistry (stay with me here for a speedy science lesson…):

When someone greets us warmly or a friend laughs at our joke, our brains are bathed in some feel good, anxiety reducing hormones. First, our old friend dopamine gives us a kick of pleasure, rewarding us for the positive interaction. Then oxytocin lowers our sense of fear, giving us confidence to continue to interact with others. Then beta endorphins are released which are a natural painkiller and which we come to crave. These last two hormones keep us coming back to people who make us feel good, helping us to develop long-term friendships.

Social media-based interaction spikes our dopamine each time we get a like or a new follower. But because that’s all there is to the interaction we can’t get any of that fear-reducing oxytocin or those juicy beta endorphins. In other words, these interactions are shallow compared with interacting face-to-face but we get hooked on them because that dopamine feels so good.

This is risky for our mental health because a brain pumped up on dopamine but starved of other protective hormones becomes vulnerable to increased levels of stress and anxiety, and more susceptible to depression. It can also reduce our capacity to connect with others because we get out of practice when it comes to flexing our social muscles.

We don’t think the answer is to avoid social media, but to be kind to our brains and to recognise that they are behind the times. Keep an eye on our Zoom Insta feed for tips and tricks to help you use social media in a brain-friendly way!