Is Social Media Changing How We Think?

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I was talking to a group of zombies.

Not actual zombies, but a group of young people on their phones, staring at small glowing screens instead of making eye contact. They were half-listening and half-scrolling. Most were using social media apps — a frenzy of clicking, scrolling and swiping.

I mentioned an interesting statistic I’d heard recently to them. If you start using social media as a preteen, you can expect to spend about six years and eight months of your life using social media. That’s 3.4 million minutes of your life, if you live to old age.

No one even glanced up.

I’ve started to wonder, after writing about social media for Forbes since 2020, what these apps are doing to our brains.

You would think there would be some scientific studies on the topic, but the research is surprisingly thin. I can only assume the reason has to do with these nascent apps, or maybe because the researchers are too distracted by their phone.

Our obsession with phones started around 2014. That’s when smartphones started to lure us in. Camera quality improved, as did cellular data speeds. Phones have been glued to our hands for only about the last 10 years.

There are a few studies worth noting, however. One found that using social media for three hours per day could lead to mental health issues. Another study revealed how brain activity changes in young people when they use Instagram. The research is from a few years ago but still rings true today. When the test subjects engaged with photos the study called “risky” (showing, say, provocative clothing), certain regions of the brain related to self-control would shut down. It’s as though that study found scientific evidence of doomscrolling, way back when.

Sadly, I don’t think we were paying attention to those warning signs. We haven’t really done anything to address the problem, and the apps keep consuming us.

We are now doomscrolling thinkers. We don’t engage, because we keep scrolling. Our thoughts are half-aware and half-baked most of the time.

Two authors I admire have both written about this topic. John Eldredge and Nicholas Carr have criticized social media and the web because we waste so much of our time on mindless pursuits. We click from one piece of content to the next, always in an absent-minded way. C.S. Lewis once wrote that there will only be noise in Hell. I’d say we’re already living in that reality. We’re in the rock-bottom cesspool of noise, wallowing in the stuff and embracing it — choosing it willingly.

The truth is, we’re choosing to be distracted because the distractions work, wrote one author. They consume us because they are temporal, shallow, and effective. That’s a killer combination. Not many things in life can engage us so quickly and so thoroughly as our phones, without having to put any effort into the activity. Yet, the things that matter always require more effort. That means we’re stuck in a vicious cycle. We’re dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety, so we choose the easiest and most effective way to lessen our anxiety. Meanwhile, because we’re not engaging in meaningful activities, we actually experience more stress — and need more and more relief. It’s a downward spiral, and social media apps have greased the rails.

My contention? Realizing we are on this spiral is the first step to finally reducing our screen time. Maybe we can spend 3.3 million minutes on the apps instead.

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