We love social media here at After Digital. We love to talk about it, we love to use it and we love to help people use it more effectively. Nothing’s going to stop us from loving it - however, we’re now hearing that our brains may not be evolved enough to handle the daily use of social media and the cultural changes that it has been bringing about. We couldn’t help but look into it…

Social media gets a lot of criticism, especially from those who are concerned about the teens and youth of tomorrow, and in an interview with Tech Radar, evolutionary anthropologist Dr Anna Machin has come forth to say that the reason she is concerned about our use of social media is because she believes it’s growing too fast for our brains to evolve and match the pace. She says:

“You can contact 200 people at once. You don’t have to see them – you can tell them what you’re doing, they are in your life. The problem is relationships aren't supposed to be efficient. If we try and have efficient social relationships, the quality goes down, and the costs - particularly in relation to your physical and mental health - go up.”

- Dr Anna Machin

group of people browsing social media on their phones

Her belief is that the convenience of social media doesn’t fit well with how humans became the dominant form of life on Earth, and instead of creating a better environment for the brain - it’s creating an easier one with a lot more social stresses and confusing signals. Looking into actual brain chemistry, when we have a social interaction oxytocin lowers the ‘fear’ element in your brain, allowing you to approach the person you want to chat to. When the interaction is pleasing, you will have a rush of dopamine to make you feel happier, as well as a rush of beta-endorphins. These endorphins act as a natural opiate, which can make you feel a sense of withdrawal that will encourage you to continue your relationship with that person by seeing them regularly. Social media interactions don’t follow this same line of reactions... You get the rush of pleasure when you get new followers or likes but you’re unable to follow it up with the physical contact that strengthens relationships - leaving you with lots of social interactions but no enrichment from the relationship.

“We're whipping ahead with all this innovation, doing these amazing things, but the biological evolution hasn't evolved and isn't adapted to having social relationships online. So there's this massive mismatch.”

- Dr Anna Machin

If our brains aren’t evolved enough for the use of social of media at the rate we are using it, that could spell trouble for our young people - the biggest users of social media. Teens are prevalent on most platforms. Snapchat is especially popular, with 78% of young adults (ages of 18 - 24 shown in the graph - however, more of its audience is between the ages of 13 - 17) using the platform regularly and Instagram, known as the marketplace for millennials, follows shortly behind with 71%.

social media platforms sorted by age demographics

According to Machin, teens regularly using these platforms are putting their brains through social interaction processes that are so infantile in comparison to the thousands of years of tried and tested social interaction that we have come to know. Having this instant ability to connect with someone, with very little of a personal level being present in that interaction, they are working against the growth of their own social skills - something that becomes incredibly unique to them in this stage of their lives. She says: “The brain chemistry is very, very finely balanced. You only need to prod it slightly out of line for there to be negative consequences,” and putting an adolescent brain, full of hormones and at one of the most vulnerable stages of its life, through this method of social interaction may not be such a good idea.

Despite this, a recent Pew Centre survey delved into the positive aspects of social media use in teens. Across the 743 teens, aged between 13 - 17, surveyed, over 80% of them believed that social media helped them feel more connected to their friends and over two thirds claimed they felt that the use of social networks helped them connect with more diverse people and as though they had a support system whilst they faced challenging life situations. 60% also mentioned that social media allowed them to show support for causes and issues that were important to them and 68% confessed that social networks helped them feel more accepted. This is something that Machin concedes to, saying that social media has been incredibly useful for sharing ideas, mental health (in certain respects - like helping people find a support network) and, by allowing us to reach out to like-minded people no matter the distance.

In short, social media has a lot of good elements and bad elements and it is the way that you use it that truly determines how it will impact your life. Of course, delving into it and making it the centre of your world will have adverse effects on your physical, mental and emotional well-being, but we’re aiming to avoid people becoming social media zombies for now! Machin also has a lot of thoughts on the rise of AI, but we think we’ll leave that for another day and another blog…