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How Does Social Media Parasitize Your Brain?

Modern technology turns our evolved desires against us

The desire to affiliate with other human beings is of the most powerful human motivations. In his classic textbook Principles of Psychology, William James (1890) observed that social isolation can be a form of torture. “To one long pent up on a desert island,” James said, “the sight of a human footprint or a human form in the distance would be the most tumultuously exciting of experiences.” Supporting James’ insight, dozens of social psychological experiments attest to the psychological agony of being socially isolated (Williams & Nida, 2011).

There are good reasons for this: being in cooperative relationships with other people greatly increased our ancestors’ odds of survival. In classic research on the Aché of Paraguay, anthropologists Hillard Kaplan, Kim Hill, Kristen Hawkes and Ana Hurtado found evidence that sharing of food was likely essential to survival among hunter-gatherer groups. Because sometimes one family finds a rich food source that would not have lasted long without refrigeration (such as a successfully hunted tapir or armadillo), sharing that food with other families provides an insurance policy when their family has a bad week, and another family gets lucky. Besides sharing foods, cooperating social relationships are helpful in many ways: defending against attacks by outsiders, building huts or boats, and so on.

So, we are designed to highly value our social relationships. There are also costs to being involved with others, you need to invest time in helping others, you may embarrass yourself by doing something badly in a public setting, and you might catch some contagious pathogen, for example. But in general, the benefits of social contact outweighed the costs for our ancestors.

In the modern world, however, we have technologies that allow people to satisfy their craving for social contact without all the costs. Going on Facebook or other social media, you can have controlled interactions with a large number of people and quickly generate lots of virtual pats on the back (in the form of likes and smiley faces). And you can edit what you say in advance to reduce the odds of making a fool of yourself (not everyone takes advantage of the editing option, of course, but it is there). To accomplish all this virtual social contact, you don’t even have to leave the house, thus saving calories and time, and reducing the risk of catching a disease from other people.

There’s a lot of money to be made in social media. In 2017, Snapchat made $1 billion, Twitter made $2 billion, and Facebook made $40 billion. Much of this money comes from advertising, suggesting that the companies that advertised there also made a lot of money from user’s clicks. Instagram, which was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, was recently valued at $35 billion.

So, you are helping out the economy, or at least some segments of the economy, when you use social media. But are you helping yourself?

Social psychologist Jean Twenge presents data suggesting that the answer is “probably not.” In fact, Twenge has data indicating that the use of social media may be bad for young people’s mental health. Young people who spend relatively more time on social media are more depressed and anxious than those who spend relatively less time on social media. On the other hand, young people who spend relatively more time in face-to-face contact with actual friends are relatively less depressed and anxious than average (see Figure 1). This is troubling because, as Twenge reports, between the years 2000 and 2015, since the introduction of iPads and iPhones, 40% fewer teenagers are getting together with their friends every day.

Original figure, based on Twenge data presented in verbal form
Source: Original figure, based on Twenge data presented in verbal form

While they’re not getting together with one another, how much time are young people spending on social media? One study found that college students spent 143 minutes each day on text messaging and emails, and 81 more minutes on social media such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (Roberts et al., 2014). And more cell phone use seems to lead to lower grades (Lepp et al. 2014).

Modern technology parasitizes the brain’s adaptive mechanisms

You can think of social media as analogous to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Our ancestors craved fats and sugars but found it difficult to locate good sources of nutritious food. Hence, our brains’ reward systems light up like a slot machine in Las Vegas whenever we get a taste of triple fudge ice cream, which contains more nutrients than most of our ancestors could have found in a week. But in the modern world, at least the first world, where you can stock your fridge with rich sweet fatty foods, and you’re not likely to starve, you would live a longer and healthier life if your brain lit up every time you ate a bowl of collard greens. Ben and Jerry’s, as wonderfully delicious as it is, is parasitizing a formerly useful ancestral motivation. This is what evolutionary theorists call a “mismatch” between an ancestral mechanism and the modern environment. Social media are like Ben and Jerry’s for our brain’s social modules – our brains light up on receiving quick access to gossip, jokes, and “likes” from dozens of friends all at once for minimal effort. But like too much ice cream, too much social media doesn’t seem to be good for you, even if your brain thinks it feels good.

Related blogs:

Seven ways Facebook is bad for your mental health

The influence smugglers

Self-evaluation via the Internet

If you pursue happiness, you may find loneliness

The beauty of low expectations


Kaplan, H., Hill, K., Hawkes, K., & Hurtado, A. (1984). Food sharing among Ache hunter-gatherers of Eastern Paraguay. Current Anthropology, 25(1), 113-115.

Lepp, A., Barkley, J. E., & Karpinski, A. C. (2014). The relationship between cell phone use, academic performance, anxiety, and satisfaction with life in college students. Computers in Human Behavior, 31, 343-350.

Roberts, J., Yaya, L., & Manolis, C. (2014). The invisible addiction: Cell-phone activities and addiction among male and female college students. Journal of behavioral addictions, 3(4), 254-265.

Twenge, J.M. (2017, September). Have smartphones destroyed a generation? The Atlantic.

Williams, K. D., & Nida, S. A. (2011). Ostracism: Consequences and coping. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 71-75.