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TikTok Is Killing Our Brains

“Alright, I just need to get this one task finished and I should be good.”
A phone flashes with an array of notifications in your peripheral vision.
“Well, maybe just five minutes of distraction should be fine.”

Of course, five minutes turns into ten minutes, and before you know it, you’ve spent an entire hour scrolling through TikTok. The dopamine hit is hitting, you’re being sent a wave of pleasure through your brain, and are waiting for the next wave to hit. Sooner or later, the high of instant gratification will wear off, and you’ll need to immerse yourself in hours more of entertainment to reach a baseline. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg in our social-media-obsessed society. In today’s digital age, social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter have become integral parts of our lives, shaping not only our thoughts and ideas but the physiological structure beneath them: our brains. 

How Social Media Affects Your Brain
It Divides Our Attention
Research shows that social media use divides our attention, and often affects our ability to sustain attention and concentration on tasks. While this may not seem like a big deal, over time, this constant disruption of concentration can lead to feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and stress. Imagine trying to juggle a mundane task while a dopamine-releasing device sits on your desk, waiting to suck you into an endless scroll of short-form content. 

Comparing moderate to light social media users, heavy users have to exert more effort to remain focused in the face of distraction. Researchers think this may be because social media is easily accessible and competes for our attention with new content, alluring videos, and of course the neverending scroll. Not only does this lead to poorer outcomes for cognitive performance, but over time, it can shrink parts of the brain that are associated with maintaining attention. 

It’s Addictive
Much like a drug, social media delivers wave after wave of dopamine hits, that leave our brains craving more. One study found that 62.3 percent of the global population is on social media, with the average daily usage last month clocking in at 2 hours and 23 minutes. Anna Lembke, MD, psychiatry professor and Chief of the Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University, says, “The more we activate that intense pleasure response on social media, the more we crave it.” While it seems pretty mild, it’s actually more sinister than just a “phone addiction.” Social media mimics human connection, prompting dopamine releases when we get likes, comments, or shares on our posts. All the minimal effort we exert on social media actually sends more dopamine than it ever would in a normal real-life interaction. This is why Lembke says social media is more like a drug. While social media waters down basic human connections, it also “drugifies” them. We’re left with a sense of emptiness when the dopamine release ends––we need more dopamine, and thus, we turn to our phones to satisfy that craving. 

It Affects Memory
Memory is our brain’s forte. If we wanted to compare our brain’s capacity of storage to a computer’s, our brain accumulates approximately 2.5 million gigabytes of information. While our brains are powerhouses of information, studies have shown that heavy social media use has been linked to lapses in memory and memory deficits, especially in our transactive memory. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, social media use may have at least short-term effects on emotional functioning and self-reported memory of those who use social media long-term. For instance, when individuals are absorbed in scrolling through their feeds or checking notifications, they are diverting their attention away from the real-world experiences that are taking place right in front of them. This constant distraction can affect and hinder the encoding and consolidation of new memories. 

In addition, social media causes shallow processing of information, which over time, leads to weaker memory traces, making encoded information more susceptible to forgetting. 

The Good News
We live in a society that is uber-dependent on social media platforms for news, company announcements, and just normal information sharing. While it may feel disheartening to know our social media intake can harm us, there is still so much time to rewire our brains. If you want to help cleanse your mind of social media, pick up a book instead; spend time outside, phone-free, and engage in time with your friends and family in person. Remember, it’s all about everything in moderation.

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