Social media is rewiring my brain

I’m becoming obsessive. I check my email on my iPhone as soon as I wake up. I catch up with friends on Facebook while sitting at red lights and I get an overwhelming sense of urgency to check my phone when I hear the familiar ping of an incoming text message. (I’m afraid to even mention the number of feeds and streams in my Hootsuite account.) I’ve noticed that these tendencies have gotten worse over the last few years and have made a joke about having developed some form of communications-related attention deficit disorder.

Imagine my surprise (read: vindication) when I read a post on Ragan’s PR Daily blog citing a number of pieces of research asserting that social media is indeed rewiring our brains. Here’s how:

We’re becoming dumber.
When your email is pinging and your Twitter stream is flowing, it’s easy to become distracted, and distracted workers are dumb. In fact, their brains are more numb than that of a pot smoker. A 2005 Hewlett-Packard study found that workers distracted by email and phone calls experience a temporary drop in IQ that is more than twice that seen in people who smoke marijuana.

We get bored more easily.
Emails, texts messages, and social media updates tickle the primal part of our brains that responds to threats and immediate opportunities, according to a 2010 New York Times article. “The stimulation provokes excitement—a dopamine squirt—that researchers say can be addictive,” wrote Matt Richtel for the
Times. “In its absence, people feel bored.”

We can’t focus or handle stress.
All that media you’re consuming daily—which is about three times as much as people consumed daily in 1960—is stressing you out, hurting your problem-solving abilities, inhibiting your creativity, and making you a slower thinker. (That’s according to this infographic from VizWorld, which compiles the information in a tidy fashion for distracted thinkers.)

But that’s not all. The same Times story from Richtel on the dopamine squirt we get from technology also said:

“Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.”

Of course, thanks to smartphones and other mobile devices, our brains are never really “off” computers anymore.

We are less satisfied.
According to a
Harvard Business Review (HBR) story from this year, the online connection that provides dopamine doesn’t give us the calming oxytocin or serotonin we typically get when we interact with people in real life. That means, “On Twitter, you won’t feel satisfied the way you might if you chatted in person with 50 people at a conference,” says HBR’s David Rock.

We are becoming more partisan.
Social media channels—blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds—are making it easier for news consumers to find content that is slanted to their political beliefs, thus exposing them to less cross-cutting information. That’s not good for your dinner table conservations or the nation’s ability to make important decisions. A 2011 paper from researchers at Southern Illinois University determined:

“Selective exposure is generally seen as an important concern because a lack of diversity in political information and discussion hampers the ability of disagreeing citizens to engage in rational decision-making.”

The mainstream media—to some extent—provide something of a balance to partisan views, the report noted. (Although that is being undermined by cable news networks.)


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