Chintada: Is social media rewiring our brains?

Latavya Chintada, Staff Columnist

With high speed internet, various streaming services and media platforms, it’s no wonder that most of us are finding ourselves more and more online, especially during a pandemic. it’s almost impossible to completely avoid media, because the internet has become so deeply ingrained within modern society. 

Social media can be a great way to connect ourselves with long-distance family and friends and stay up to date with global current events. However, my friends and I have found ourselves having a lower attention span than usual lately. For example, I realized that I was no longer able to focus on one task for an extended period of time, even when it came to watching movies. I would simply lose interest half way through and turn it off. I had absolutely no problem binging different videos on Youtube, but when it came to watching a 2.5 hour movie, I simply could not power through. 

That’s when I realized that somehow my brain was being rewired for instant gratification. In particular, social media platforms such as TikTok, Twitter and Instagram are practically designed to hold our attention with short, concise videos and posts, as well as a dynamic layout that’s constantly refreshed for new content. In this way, we are getting accustomed to having multiple streams of information at once. 

There seems to be a definite correlation between overconsumption of social media and a low attention span, but how it affects your brain is still being investigated. Many of us have developed a habit of reaching for our phones to constantly check for notifications or news updates. 

Firth et al. suggested that this may be due to “behavioral reinforcement from information rewards that are received immediately from checking the device.” In other words, our dopamine-reward pathway is being targeted in such a way that we only feel satisfied once we check our phone for notifications. So even though it is not specifically an “internet” issue, technology and media overconsumption can introduce these checking habits without us even knowing. 

It does not help that this is exactly what big technology companies want. Through these behaviors, companies gather more users, shares, likes and posts on their platforms which all serve to boost their profit. Companies even capitalize on grabbing our attention by using artificial intelligence to selectively pick and choose what content to show to a user. 

A classic example is TikTok, a popular app that grew quite rapidly in the past 2 years. The “For You Page,” also known as the Fyp, is an extremely personalized feed that is unique to each individual. This means that a user will rarely see content that they do not enjoy, and their algorithms constantly monitor your likes and activity to evolve the Fyp to match with your changing interests. Because you are only seeing content that you are interested in, it’s hard to get off the app and you might find yourself spending hours at a time on it. TikTok videos are no longer than a minute which means they don’t have to work to hold your attention, contributing to the low attention span theory. 

From using targeted ads to creating a personalized feed for each user based on their interests, these social media companies further feed a consumption culture despite the adverse effects overconsumption can have on individuals. If we face these problems as adults, then what about younger generations who are being introduced to social media at an earlier age than we were? 

Long-term studies for the questions asked here are still being analyzed, but according to Firth et al., it seems that introducing social media at critical periods in a child’s life creates a “non-ideal environment for higher cognitive functions.” Higher frequency of internet usage is linked with diminished verbal intelligence and hinders the maturation of the brain. This might explain why the term “iPad kid” has such a negative connotation. We all know of an “iPad kid,” a child who has an extreme attachment to some sort of electronic device, with a fussy-demanding personality to boot. 

So how can we limit our overconsumption of media and technology, while still keeping in touch with people in this day and age? I think the key thing here is to note that consumption of media is perfectly normal. It’s when we become addicted to it and start over consuming it that we start experiencing a plethora of problems. 

One of the things I started to do, once I realized I was spending way too much time on my phone—with help from Apple’s Screen Time feature—was to set time limits on all my social apps. That way I am not spending multiple hours a day on TikTok or Twitter and regulating my consumption of media. I also find myself reaching for my phone unconsciously in 5 minute intervals, so in order to stop that, I place my phone in a different room while working or doing tasks. 

Overall, finding a good balance between social media and your personal life is a good step towards a healthier lifestyle. If you notice yourself becoming more distracted than usual or finding yourself spending most of your day on your phone, take it as your signal to set limits on some of those apps and occupy yourself with healthier hobbies!