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Experts Explain What Happens To Your Brain When You Scroll Through Social Media For Hours

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Instagram, TikTok, and other apps provide a heavy dose of escapism, humor, and viral dances to make things a little brighter. This kind of connection with others can be a huge boost — but too much social media can also cause some problems for your neurological health and mood levels.

"As business has not been ‘business as usual,’ our screen time has increased," Dr. Clifford Segil, D.O., a neurologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center, tells Bustle. And that means our time on social media has exploded too. Bloomberg reported in March that both Twitter and Facebook had seen huge surges in usage since the pandemic began, with Facebook alone reporting 70% rises on its platforms WhatsApp and Instagram. Nearly half of 24- to 39-year-olds who responded to a recent survey of 2,000 Americans conducted by Onepoll on behalf of Bustle said they were mainly using social media to scroll for hours.

It won't be known how the specific ways we're using social media during the pandemic will affect our brains for years. But experts are toying with some theories.

How Scrolling Through Apps For Hours Affects Your Brain

On the basic level, social media activates several areas of the brain at once. Segil says that it tends to stimulate the visual processing areas of the brain, as you interpret the incoming information, and the auditory pathways to interpret any sounds or music. It also produces activity in your expressive pathways, the ones that control speech and language, when you want to respond to messages or write captions. And it affects your focus. "It activates similar brain regions to the ones used when focusing your attention on cognitive activities like reading or playing video games," Segil says. You can end up scrolling for hours because your mind's so tuned into your Instagram feed.

Staying on social media for ages can also impact your brain's emotional regulation. "Many people are suffering from sadness, anxiety, anguish, frustration, and boredom during their quarantine or social distancing efforts," Dr. Sanam Hafeez Psy.D., a neuropsychologist, tells Bustle. But social media can help your brain get through it. When you're on social media that makes you feel good, particularly if you're engaging with somebody you know directly, your brain may react by boosting your mood through neurotransmitters. "Joy coincides with the release of dopamine and serotonin in the body," Hafeez says. These neurotransmitters are linked to increases in mood.

What Happens In Your Brain When You Doomscroll

There's a downside, though. Segil says that social media tends to stimulate your limbic system, which deals with emotional responses — good or bad. Social media may pack more of an emotional punch right now because you're not seeing people in the flesh; stress is known to affect the limbic system in the long term. If you're having more fights with people on Twitter or getting more upset about things you see online, this may be why.

Doomscrolling through news feeds looking for the latest updates can also be bad for your brain. Doomscrolling, the University of London noted, can mean "feeling caught up in and overwhelmed by a current of information that seems to run out of control." While doom scrolling may seem like a way to manage your panic around the virus, it could simply be feeding your brain's stress response by bombarding it with worrisome information, prompting it to release cortisol and keep you on edge. A study published in British Journal of Psychology in 2011 found that negative news on TV made people depressed and anxious, and social media is no different. Relying solely on social media for news also means people are more likely to believe paranoid conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, according to a study published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review in April.

"Any activity that keeps us safe but connected during these times can have a positive effect in reducing the anxiety and isolation that we are feeling," Hafeez says. "The social interaction that it is providing can be crucial in helping our minds cope with the confusing and worrisome times we are living in." But doom scrolling endlessly may be making you needlessly panicky.

Experts:

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D.

Dr. Clifford Segil, D.O.

Studies cited:

Firth, J., Torous, J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J. A., Steiner, G. Z., Smith, L., Alvarez-Jimenez, M., Gleeson, J., Vancampfort, D., Armitage, C. J., & Sarris, J. (2019). The "online brain": how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 18(2), 119–129. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20617

Jamieson, K. & Albarracin, D. (2020). The Relation between Media Consumption and Misinformation at the Outset of the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic in the US. Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review. 10.37016/mr-2020-012.

Johnston, W. M., & Davey, G. C. (1997). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: the catastrophizing of personal worries. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953), 88 ( Pt 1), 85–91. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8295.1997.tb02622.x