This Is What Your Brain Looks Like On Social Media


It’s two o’clock in the morning. You’ve got an important meeting at work in just a few hours. But, instead of sleeping, you’re on your smartphone watching videos of puppies playing with newborn babies. The main culprit in this all-too-common scenario? Social media. Admit it—you’ve been there before. Sure, you might have some growing up or prioritizing to do, but that’s not the half of it. 

According to recent research, there’s a reason for this kind of illogical activity when people start using social media. Ya see, everyone is driven by an infinite set of social, environmental, biological and technological phenomena. Because of this, human decision-making is often fueled by a combination of the need for social identity and dopamine cravings. The result? Late nights, distracted employees and the inability to fully disconnect from social media’s digital realm.

The Human Brain and Social Media

Regardless of whether it’s a selfie with a local celebrity or Instagram post of a successful homemade meal, the common thread linking any and all social media activity is the same: brain candy. In 2010, researchers discovered that upwards of 80 percent of social media posts were directly related to immediate experiences.

Two years later in 2012, a pair of Harvard graduates decided to take things a step further to see exactly how self-disclosure and social media affect the brain. Their findings revealed that when people share their personal opinions and experiences to a widespread audience, the brain is immediately awarded with a shot of dopamine—the very same stuff that’s produced during sex, exercise or the consumption of a delicious meal.

Social Media as an Addiction

But wait—there’s more. In order to settle the debate as to whether Facebook can really be considered an addiction or not, a group of students and faculty at California State University, Fullerton conducted an interesting experiment

Headed by Ofir Turel, a psychologist at the aforementioned school, the study asked that 20 undergraduate students fill out a questionnaire that gauged the most common addiction-type symptoms related to Facebook use: anxiety, withdrawal and conflict over site content and engagement.

Participants were shown a combination of Facebook logos and traffic signs. Along with each flashed image was a brief, response-driven instruction to either press or not press a button. Using resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor each person’s brain during the activity, it was concluded that, more often than not, Facebook cues were substantially more powerful triggers in people’s brains than traffic signs. 

As crazy as it sounds, this means that if you’re sharing the road with a motorist who’s addicted to some form of social media, he or she is more likely to quickly respond to a push notification than a sudden red light at a four-way intersection. Needless to say, Facebook—or any form of social media for that matter—can very much become an addiction.

Is Social Media Marketing Unethical?

As previously mentioned, the persuasive power of social media comes from a number of psychological, social and cultural factors. The best social media marketers are very aware of this and use strategic hooks to not only gain, but keep a user’s attention. Logging into Facebook is seen as stress-relieving action. Scrolling through a Twitter feed is instant entertainment for the bored. Finally, you guessed it—likes, retweets and comments keep the lonely coming back for more.

So, with all of this in mind, should social media marketing be viewed as the modern-day Joe Camel? Not in the slightest. The biggest point of differentiation comes from the fact that social media marketing—when done correctly, mind you—isn’t about pushing products. Instead, it seeks to build relationships with potential customers. 

And while said relationships certainly have the potential to lead to an unhealthy level of involvement, that’s the case with any kind of relationship—be it on Facebook, eHarmony or in person. More than anything, a social media marketer’s responsibility is to help people achieve personal satisfaction by providing them with helpful content. By so doing, both the user and brand stand to benefit.

Listen, there’s nothing innately wrong with hopping on Facebook every now and again to read up on the latest that BuzzFeed has to offer. To be honest, your societal status probably won’t even be called into question if you take the occasional Snapchat selfie in public—shocking, really. That said, to keep your brain happy and healthy, it’s never a bad idea to take a break from social media from time to time.


Lucas Miller is the Founder of Echelon Copy. When not writing, editing or running, he's working tirelessly to perfect what he claims is the "World's Greatest Pompadour." Additionally, for what it's worth, his editorial works have been featured on Social Media Today, Business2Community, Ragan's PR Daily, Spin Sucks and many other top-tier comms publications.