This is Your Brain on Social Media

Bremer Acosta
17 min readOct 18, 2019



Social media sites are often perceived as neutral tools. Depending on the users who use these technologies, so the common claim goes, they can ultimately decide whether these devices are beneficial or harmful to them. They can choose what to focus on or not focus on. If they want to quit or take a break, they can. They are in control.

If they do choose to stay on social media, they can engage its content meaningfully. After all, sites like Twitter and Facebook, among others, are places where users can be informed and entertained. Friends and family can connect in communities, forming intimate bonds, discussing the daily news, celebrating birthdays, sharing funny videos, and supporting each other’s achievements. Networks are increasingly important, especially in this age, for finding jobs, promoting businesses, and sharing creative projects.

Furthermore, social media sites can work as platforms for socio-political organization, an awareness of global issues, a development of revolutionary ideas, and direct action. Movements have formed based on the momentum of hashtags, groups, events, and shares.

While these potential benefits have all happened, to one degree or another, there is another side that is more insidious. Social media, while a boon for some, comes with consequences, partially based on its addicting design and platform for manipulative forces. Even users with the noblest intentions, who are the epitome of ethical citizens, are still vulnerable to these features, which could negatively affect their mental health, without them even realizing it.

Slot Machine Design

People are vulnerable to persuasive technologies. These technologies, whether they’re social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, are designed to convince their users to spend more time on them. To influence how they pay attention, what they pay attention to, and for as long as possible. There are several built-in features, which are chosen to keep users addicted, through a manipulation of their desires and cognitive biases.

Humans are social creatures who need validation. Connection, intimacy. They want to belong, to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. On Facebook, for example, the moment after a user uploads a profile picture, but before they receive attention for it, they are susceptible. Their anticipation before seeing any notifications (in bright red) builds dependency in their minds. They are uncertain about how others will perceive them. They’re primed for a reward or a punishment. They took a gamble and now await approval, disapproval, silence, until their phone rings or vibrates, until a red number pops up on the screen.

Technology companies, according to Tristan Harris (a techno-ethicist and former worker for Google), control the dial for “when and how long your profile photo shows up on other people’s news feeds.” Based on delayed, calculated periods, a user’s posts are selectively shown. Notifications don’t buzz immediately. The user is gradually reinforced with a “reward” after feeling exposed to uncertainty.

Harris goes on to say, in a Big Think interview, that these designers are not inherently evil, but are in competition with other technologies. Their goal is to get people (online consumers) to spend as much time as possible on their products. They accomplish this through deliberate techniques of persuasion.

One technique they use is based on a “variable schedule reward.” This is like a slot machine in a person’s pocket, according to Harris. When a gambler pulls on a lever, sometimes they’re rewarded (three money signs) and sometimes they’re out of luck (three skulls). When the potential of a reward is more random, there “appears” to be more chances to win, even if there aren’t. As a result, the more addicting the pull becomes.

Social media sites are similar. Every time a user clicks on a page or checks their phone, they pull on a lever for a reward. Their notifications, whether in the form of comments, likes, invites to social events, and so on, train them to keep coming back. Notifications aren’t always the same (more variables) and they’re designed to be inconsistent. The user will be rewarded in varied, gradual doses. Overtime, the gambler will be seduced into the system. As a result, the game will go on for longer and for higher stakes.

Logic of the Internet

Your brain adapts to the logic of what it uses. The more you engage a certain tool, whether it’s a map, book, or computer, the more your neural connections strengthen. As neuropsychologist Donald Hebb said in 1949, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Brains not only change neurochemically, but anatomically, from their neuroplasticity. New pathways form while other cellular connections, which aren’t used as much, weaken overtime.

Your “neural systems” are responsive to the environment they’re in. When social media sites hum with distractions, when they overload you with sensationalist news stories, hyperlinks, new profile rewards, advertisements, and comments under auto-playing videos, then your brain adapts to this chaotic sense. Your ability to focus, to ruminate, lessens. Your working memory is interrupted more, making it harder to bring information into your long-term memory. Rather than integrating knowledge, your mind skips across a sea of data.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, said the net is incredibly information-rich. It promotes a compulsive mindset in its users, where people are “constantly checking our phones, glancing at our email inbox, living in a perpetual state of distraction and interruption.” This works to divide attention at the expense of memory consolidation. Deep thinking is replaced with fast, shallow thinking.

Dr. Cal Newport, in Deep Work, argues that being focused in this distracted world is a transformative experience. While the masses are hooked to “social media posturing,” checking their emails, blogs, phones, and news feeds, deep concentration requires a shifting of habit, attitude, and livelihood. Technology companies profit from your attention, while “deep work” means a shedding of your dependency on these technologies. Deep work, as a result, has become increasingly rare in this “competitive twenty-first century economy.”

Statistical Addiction

• Social media sites are used by 1/3rd of all people in the world. That number has been projected to rise with the use of mobile devices. (Video: ASAP Science/eMarketer Report).

• 5–10% of internet users are unable to control how much time they spend online. Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder, who underwent brain scans, had atrophied white matter in regions involved with attention, decision making, and emotional processing (Study: Abnormal White Matter Integrity in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder: A Tract-Based Spatial Statistics Study).

• The average person spends around two hours on social media per day. This translates to more than five years in a lifetime. Some teenagers in the U.S. are on social platforms for nine hours every day (Article: How Much Time do People Spend on Social Media?).

• Flurry, an analytics firm, found that the rates of social media use have grown exponentially. Mobile app usage — with the most popular ones being Facebook, Messenger, Google, Gmail, Instagram, Amazon, Apple Music (2016) — increased by 11% after each year. Recently, it has grown even more, reaching up to 69%.


Fear of Missing Out (FoMO) affects many social media users. FoMO experiencers have a nagging sense that they’re missing out on something important. They imagine that somebody is having a better time than them. They only don’t know about it or weren’t included. They feel rejected from the “good times” that everyone else has.

In a recent study on the motivational, behavioral, and emotional correlates of FoMO on social media, this term is viewed as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent, FoMO is characterized by the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing.”

Even though FoMO can stem from life dissatisfaction, it’s exacerbated by social media. The sharing of party pictures, get-togethers, relationship updates, selfies, and so on, reinforces isolation in users who see that content.

FoMO can even lead to a more serious depression. And the more depressed that someone feels, the more time they may cling to social media. Checking into chatrooms, posting more content, while being physically alone, which worsens their negative feelings. Dr. Stephanie Mihalas, a clinical instructor and psychologist, said that being “wrapped up in social media can create a negative cycle… Some people may spend time surfing Facebook to try and escape their depressive symptoms. However, social media can actually become a root of unhealthy emotions.”

In a University of Pittsburg study, which surveyed 1,787 adults from 19 to 34 years, social media directly correlated with social isolation. People who used popular sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn, for two hours per day, were twice as likely to feel socially isolated. If they went to these sites 58 times each week, their isolation increased to three times as high.

Appearances of Happiness

Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist and professor at California State University, said that “Social media is basically social comparison on steroids. People showcase the most aspirational version of themselves on social media — new houses, expensive dinners, exotic vacations. It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others in order to learn how to behave and gauge societal expectations, but this becomes problematic when it feeds low self-esteem or causes anxiety.”

Users create profiles of themselves. Carefully selecting shots of their faces. Saturated beach sunsets. Cropped pictures of sagging arms. They want to appear a certain way to an audience. They’re encouraged to be more persona than human, perpetually smiling, commenting, and laughing. Even moments of sincerity are manufactured for the responses they’ll get, the pity comments and sympathy likes. When they “believe” in a cause, responding to an offensive article with a click-bait title, they reaffirm their identities, their values, with their in-group.

People then compare themselves to others. Only they’re not comparing themselves to the hard, unedited ugliness of life or even its transitory pleasures. Realities of scraped knees, noisy babies, and lukewarm milk. Pleasures of warm kisses or sunset walks in the woods. They’re comparisons to other people’s appearances, of how they’ve portrayed themselves to their groups (leaving all the rough edges out).

Since people naturally evaluate themselves in relation to their communities (keeping up with the Joneses), they may feel jealous, inadequate, sad, or depressed. They’re never satisfied with their own self-worth because they look at only external signals of happiness and success. They don’t see what’s behind the curtain.

The Other is too overwhelming. It’s not that users don’t want their friends to succeed. They do, if they genuinely care about them. Their urge to check themselves against other users to assess their self-worth and societal value, however, is normalized from these sites. In the web of social media, users use technologies that use them back, building mental habits that fit with the site’s design and purposes. The more time they spend on these sites, the more they strengthen their need to compare and judge, while alienating themselves.


Users are positively reinforced for posting “favorable” idea X. They receive recognition from their peer groups in the shape of comments, likes, thumbs ups, and shares. They’re negatively reinforced for posting something “unfavorable.” Then they’re ignored, have fewer likes, argue with other members, and so on. Meanwhile, they’re comparing their likes to the likes of other users. They’re assessing their identity and their values, not only in what they post, but in what other people post too.

Soon, after each post, anticipating what the potential reward will be, keeps them hooked. They play the slot machine, hoping for a reward. Gradually, they adjust for “winners” and filter out “losers.” This takes the form of changing their audiences (unfollowing), losing a sense of who follows them (acquaintances/friends blurring together), joining communities that build their biases, or adapting their posts to fit into the digital environment (the logic of the system).

Without even noticing, their posts alter to fit what is favorable to others. Their ideas change unconsciously. They self-censor without realizing it, because it’s a gradual, rewarded process. Choices are rationalized under the guise of art, connection, or friendship, when they’re truly done for external validation. Intentions are corrupted for the dopamine-fix of likes. These attitudes are reinforced with more use of social media sites, and these sites are designed purposely for capturing people’s attention. As a result, users are conditioned to become dependent, not only on the product, but on what the product gives. It gives self-worth.

In Tim Kasser’s The High Price of Materialism, materialistic individuals often go into activities craving their extrinsic rewards/external validation (praise, applause, recognition). They don’t look for joy in the intrinsic satisfaction of striving in the moment, challenging themselves and learning through struggle.

They seek rewards, not a flow-state of experience. They’re drawn to passive activities that give them immediate pleasure, such as watching YouTube videos or checking their Facebook feeds, rather than focusing on authentic experiences. They follow paths of conformity, wanting praise, attention, false congratulations, rather than doing what’s uncertain or challenging. Materialistic paths lead to loss, dependence on the approval of others, a need to appear as popular and cool, while undergoing a series of moral compromises.


Selfies are amateur pictures that people take of themselves. They’re often done with mobile devices. On social media, these pictures have risen so much in popularity that they are now normalized with posters.

In the journal of Personality and Individual Difference, a study was done “to examine the association between narcissism, a personality trait characterized by inflated self-views and attempts to seek attention and admiration from others, and frequency of posting selfies on social networking sites.”

Researchers evaluated narcissism by three facets:

1. Leadership/Authority
2. Grandiose Exhibitionism
3. Entitlement/Exploitativeness.

There was a significant association of narcissism with selfie frequency. Men tested higher for Entitlement and Exploitativeness. Women tested higher for Leadership and Authority. Overall, there was a positive correlation to all three facets.

In another study, (Why we post selfies: Understanding motivations for posting pictures of oneself), researchers found that users snapped pictures of themselves because of:

1.) attention
2.) communication
3.) archiving
4.) boredom

While their intentions were different, narcissism still predicted these intentions and the selfie frequency.
In a related survey at Elon University, participants were asked about their daily internet usage. When asked why they took selfies, the top answer (52) was that selfies allowed their audience to notice their impressive social life. The second answer (43) was so that they could get the most likes and comments. The third answer (37) was to make a person jealous, whether it’s an ex or a friend. The final answer (28) was that users believed people cared about what they did.

A similar study done by Pew Research (2013), found that social media was integral to the life of many Millennials. They often determined their popularity and self-worth from these sites. Moreover, users manipulated their profile content to get more likes, even deleting pictures with fewer likes, to seem more popular.


Social media has changed its users’ perceptions of what is standard. It’s common to hear about nude selfies, celebrity sex tapes, mass tragedies, scandals, and murders, under click-bait titles. These stories, which might go viral for a week before being replaced with the next story, are shown on the same feed as promotions, graduations, dinner parties, humble-brags, selfies, political rants, cat pictures, quotes, check-ins at the local bar, and so on.

Social media sites are filled with an overwhelming influx of information. Content always changes, adapting to its users. Everything is made to be linked and subscribed to, liked and commented on, advertised and shared.


When you click on your first link, you glimpse an associative link. Then that link is interrupted by an ad for hiking boots. You buy the hiking boots and remember a movie about climbing a snowy mountain. Three active volcano movies pop up on YouTube. One is illegal. You watch half of one, and then you glance over, and pull up another tab. You check your feed. You don’t remember a good reason for checking it. Other than a moment of boredom.

You become desensitized to a vast amount of ever-changing content.

You scroll for something to care about. You care for a few minutes, a moment.

Then that story is replaced for another story, then another, then another.


When you connect with someone online, you hold an idea of that person. It’s not actually who they are. It’s who they choose to display. They present an image of themselves, most likely in a desirable, edited way, and you interpret their identity. You stay updated on how they live, constructing a more elaborate picture overtime. They’re trying to convince you to see them as they want to be seen. You feel intimate with their appearance, but have minimal interactions offline. You wonder why you feel alone when you glance at their profile.

When you sit at a café, you look at your feed. One notification. Your online friend liked a post. You smile. Then you remember your friend has a birthday. Should you wish them a birthday text or wait until later? Your coffee slides across the table. You look up and mumble thanks. Then go back to your phone. Three stories appear. You will read them later. One is labeled: You wouldn’t believe what a grandmother did to her dog. You click on that one. The other two, about political strife and the decay of the presidency, are important. You must stay informed. But for now, you need to relax. Unwind, sip your coffee, and take a selfie with your coffee. #mocha #living #sundayfunday

Freedom of Choice

People want the freedom to choose. They want to feel in control. Magicians look for that desire in their audiences. They manipulate cognitive limitations, especially in people who’re confident they have none. They’ve trained for many years, learning how to rely on false beliefs and biases for their illusions. Tricks are performed with touches of misdirection and a sleight of hand. Marco Tempest, in his TED talk, said that magic is “a deception that we enjoy.”

Tristan Harris, a researcher and former Design Ethicist at Google, considers the relation of magic to social media. On social media sites, there are menus with limited options. They seem to provide the notion of choice. Harris said, however, in How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist, “This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose.”

He goes on to question the premise of the menu. For instance, what did the designers not include on the menu? What are their goals? Are these options substantial, or relevant, or a distraction from the user’s original purpose?

Users not only have their options chosen for them, but their exposure to these options is repeated. They’re conditioned to accept a certain number of possibilities and not others.

People check their phones, on average, 150 times per day.

Every time they log in, they choose what designers provided for them to interact with. Beyond the standard menu of X options, there are suggestive choices. Facebook, according to Harris, interrupts users with automatic suggestions. Do you want to befriend Fred, tag Alex, or read a trending story? Choices, even when they’re given to the user, connect with other choices, which distract from the original purpose.

Users feel that they have freedom, but their freedom is carefully constructed.

Political Propaganda

The Computational Propaganda Research Project, a team made up of twelve researchers across nine countries, investigated the “use of social media for public opinion manipulation.” They interviewed 65 experts, analyzed tens of millions of posts on seven different social media platforms, during times of “elections, political crises, and national security incidents.” This analysis, from 2015–2017, drew from evidence in Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Poland, Taiwan, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. They looked at the global trends in computational propaganda after a qualitative, quantitative, and computational evidence-based examination.

To deliberately use misleading information through algorithms, human curation, or automation, is computational propaganda. Social media platforms are places where people form identities, write publicly about their beliefs, find communities of likeminded people, share political stories. In more authoritarian countries, social media acts as a main place for “social control.” In democracies, the emphasis of propaganda is for broadly controlling opinions or targeting select groups. During free elections, bots are often used to manipulate online discussions. While in authoritarian countries, opinions are restricted or controlled, democratic countries often influence with bots, automated accounts, mostly used by lobbyists and governments. Often the bots and trolls work together to manipulate public opinion.

The authors of this study concluded: “Computational propaganda is now one of the most powerful tools against democracy. Social media firms may not be creating this nasty content, but they are the platform for it. They need to significantly redesign themselves if democracy is going to survive social media.”

Another way that public opinion is swayed is through advertisements. On social media, ads are placed covertly to be less disruptive than traditional ads. They’re a part of the design format, which leads to more engagement among users. Facebook ads, for instance, have “eight times the click rate as regular web ads,” according to LocalSphere Digital Media Inc. Audiences are targeted because companies can gather more information about them, based on what pages they liked, searched for, commented on, shared, and so on. They use socio-demographic, interest, behavioral, and connection-based methods. The longer a user engages with social media, the more information they reveal. Then companies can influence them into buying their products.

The public relations industry has adapted to social media as well. They focus more on relationships with their consumers than ever before. They want to build communities, where users form identities with their products. Users feel like participants when they follow pages for updates, complain via tweets, share posts with friends, and so on. What they don’t realize is how their opinions are manufactured.

Noam Chomsky, political activist, linguist and author, has said that the “PR industry’s goal is controlling attitudes and opinions.” They’re not devoted to making informed, educated consumers who will see a list of a product’s attributes and then choose what they want to buy. Consumers are influenced to be uninformed about what’s being sold to them, making irrational choices based on what’s suggested.

The PR process extends to politics too. In a recent study, The Public Relations in Media during election campaigns, the “PR industry has directly impacted media content.” Their influence is widespread in television, newspapers, magazines, and social media outlets. Political campaigns have grown more dependent on public relations based on its presence and ability to filter information to the public, representing the interests of those who can pay high costs. As a result, traditional journalism has lessened. More of a reliance on the PR industry has occurred, especially during the election cycles.

Chomsky, when interviewed about the role of the PR industry, went on to say that, “The role of the PR industry in elections is explicitly to undermine the school-child version of democracy. What you learn in school is that democracies are based on informed voters making rational decisions. All you have to do is take a look at an electoral campaign run by the PR industry and see that the purpose is to create uninformed voters who will make irrational decisions. For the PR industry that’s a very easy transition from their primary function. Their primary function is commercial advertising. Commercial advertising is designed to undermine markets. If you took an economics course you learned that markets are based on informed consumers making rational choices. If you turn on the TV set, you see that ads are designed to create irrational, uninformed consumers making irrational choices. The whole purpose is to undermine markets in the technical sense.”

Information that users engage with, which is influenced from bots, automated accounts, and so on, may also be influenced by filter bubbles. Based on what a user searches for, likes, comments on, and shares, algorithms then take guesses on future information that a user would prefer.

Users, who have information curated for them based on past online actions, gradually become insulated in ideological bubbles. They isolate from opinions that they disagree with while reinforcing themselves in echo chambers. If left unchecked, a user’s biases will solidify, while they’re hidden from alternative viewpoints. They will divide more, forming ideologically rigid groups. They will identify with narrower opinions rather than critically challenging what is presented to them. If they’re only given options A through C, they won’t know the rest of the alphabet.

Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, said in an interview: “…the Internet is very good at helping groups of people with like interests band together (like MoveOn), it’s not so hot at introducing people to different people and ideas. Democracy requires discourse and personalization is making that more and more elusive. And that worries me, because we really need the Internet to live up to that connective promise. We need it to help us solve global problems like climate change, terrorism, or natural resource management which by their nature require massive coordination, and great wisdom and ingenuity. These problems can’t be solved by a person or two. They require whole societies to participate. And that just won’t happen if were all isolated in a web of one.”


People are persuaded to use social media as much as possible. Every year, users and their engagement with these sites exponentially rises. While on these technologies, they’re exposed to many sources of influence, distraction, and exploitation. From design features, which addict and distract users, to bots and automated accounts, which manipulate their opinions, they’re vulnerable to these tools without necessarily realizing it.

Meanwhile, users are often reinforced with “unhealthy mental states,” such as jealousy and isolation and depression, which could lead to more serious conditions. While platforms are an open place for communities and connections, they’re hosts for those who undermine democratic principles, in the manufacturing of their thought.