The Dark Side of Social Media & Its Negative Impact on Health
Listening to this topic may not be a walk in the park, but it’s crucial to acknowledge the risks that come with the excessive use of social media and smartphones. Throughout this presentation, we’ll revisit a few key points you should keep in mind.
Are You Hooked?
When does your day start and end with a smartphone in hand? Roughly how many hours do you spend each day on social media or other platforms? What’s consuming most of your time online? Let’s break it down. Suppose you’re on social media for an average of 3 hours per day, which is on the lower end for people aged 16 to 24. That equates to roughly 20 hours a week, 80 hours a month, and around 1,060 hours a year. That’s 45 full days of your year, and these are conservative estimates.
Imagine Having 45 Days of Free Time: How Would You Spend It?
Think about the 45 days you might spend on social media over a year. What could you accomplish with that time? Whether it’s forming genuine friendships, diving deep into a unique hobby, experiencing sheer joy, achieving a sporting milestone, or having an extraordinary experience—the possibilities are endless. While smartphones undeniably make our lives more convenient, their overuse can take a toll on our mental and physical health. The stakes are even higher with social media.
Could You Unplug?
How would you feel about taking a break from social media for a day, a week, or even longer? Could you resist the urge to check your phone while hanging out with friends or during a business meeting? If not, you’re likely hooked. Social media platforms are designed to be addictive.
The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media
Over the years, social media has opened up numerous opportunities. However, it’s not without its risks. It’s important to remember that while the virtual world offers a lot, it can also take a lot away from us—mentally and socially. Therefore, it’s essential to use these platforms wisely, maximizing their benefits while minimizing their negative impacts.
The Golden Rule: Moderation is Key
The most straightforward strategy to keep in mind is moderation. Avoiding extremes in any aspect of life is generally a good rule of thumb.
In 2021, over 3.96 billion people worldwide were using social media. In the Czech Republic, 4.9 million people aged 16 and over engage with social platforms, a number growing by an average of 3% annually. In the 16-24 age group, a staggering 95% use social networks. This percentage declines as age increases; only 60% of those aged 45-54 and just 11% of those 65+ are active on these platforms.
The Psychological Impact
The influence of social media on our subjective life experience is a hot topic in new media studies. Do these platforms induce anxiety, making us more susceptible to depression? What other health impacts should we be concerned about? Alternatively, could social media actually enhance our overall well-being and life quality? We aim to explore these questions today.
Before delving into the negatives, let’s discuss “neuromarketing.” While the benefits of social media can be easily summarized and are generally understood, we won’t dwell on them here. According to Wikipedia, neuromarketing studies brain functions related to purchasing decisions. This marketing discipline examines how our brains respond to stimuli in ads, brands, and the like, seeking to identify the “buy trigger.” This concept of neuromarketing is central to the business models of social networks.
Let’s outline some of the primary negative aspects of social media:
- Impact on biorhythms, health, IQ, and performance
- Disruption of authentic social relationships and the inability to form new, meaningful ones
- Erosion of self-confidence, accompanied by fear of exclusion and feelings of inferiority
- Immersion in a self-centered virtual world (it’s important to remember that reality is different)
Martin Jan Stránský, a distinguished neurologist with practices in both the USA and the Czech Republic, kicks off the discussion on this topic. He serves as an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, is the chief of neurology at Yale New Haven Hospital, and also founded a polyclinic on Národní třída in Prague. He emphasizes that social networks operate exclusively through neuromarketing, either directly or indirectly. In some instances, dopamine levels are even measured, which fluctuate based on levels of pleasure, satisfaction, and expectation.
Naturally, the professor delves deeper into the subject. Our bodies generate dopamine when we enjoy delicious food, engage in sexual activity, exercise, or experience positive social interactions. This neurotransmitter plays a pivotal role in driving our motivation. It essentially acts as a reward for beneficial activities, encouraging us to repeat them.
Any form of notification, whether it’s a “like” or a direct message, triggers a surge in dopamine levels, making us feel good. This is why we find ourselves craving more and more notifications, and in some cases, this can lead to addiction.
What are the effects on health, IQ, and performance?
What does this mean for us and, by extension, our children? According to Professor Stránský, social networks are making us dumber. IQ levels plateau, vocabulary stagnates, and children lose the ability to problem-solve and anticipate future events. In essence, they fail to mature, remaining trapped in a shallow, artificial world. Astonishingly, Homo Sapiens have existed for some 200,000 years, yet in just the past two decades, we have engineered products fundamentally disconnected from our biology. These products influence us neurologically, shaping our thoughts and behaviors. This puts us at a critical evolutionary juncture, increasingly relying on technology and spending vast amounts of time on social media. Consequently, we are drifting away from the natural behaviors honed over hundreds of thousands of years, such as nuanced voice intonation, handshakes, and genuine interpersonal interaction. On social media, this rich tapestry of communication is replaced by emojis, thumbs up, and shortcuts. And, if something displeases you, you simply delete it.
Noticeably, excessive social media and gaming (7-8 hours a day) have a measurable negative impact on brain health. Tragically, over 60% of all online time for young people is consumed by computer gaming.
Now, listen up: Social networking sites are causing certain parts of the brain to show weakened neurochemical activity, and some structures are even shrinking or disappearing. This is especially happening in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain that lets us contemplate our own thoughts. It’s the part that turns off when we sleep and serves as the referee when we’re awake. Excessive social media use can significantly alter the basal region of the frontal lobe, which is most active during discussions and problem-solving. Social media has what’s known as “reflexive behavior,” which is akin to having your knee tapped with a hammer and your leg jerking out. In other words, you get a message or a “like,” and your reaction is immediate and reflexive, devoid of any deep thought.
Let’s be real, we all know that a thumbs-up on social media means nothing, but we crave it anyway. It’s addictive, and dopamine plays a significant role here.
Human evolution has been shaped by two basic drives: understanding nature and its laws, essentially the “will this kill me or not” mentality. But for those of us in America and Europe, these concerns are largely irrelevant now. The problems we’re facing today are radically different from those our parents and grandparents had to deal with. Yet, the same neural processes are at work. In the past, a man might have aspired to hunt a bear; today, we might liken that to a driver racing to Brno for a meeting, willing to endanger other lives just to get there on time.
The second essential need is the need to belong—to a group, clan, family, city, you name it. This need is especially prominent these days. Very few people can truly be content on their own, particularly in a modern society where there’s this constant push for something to always be happening. The thing is, our brain actually needs periods of boredom to function optimally. It needs downtime to engage in deeper thought processes and reflection. However, we’re bombarded by societal expectations and enormous marketing pressures that are pretty much geared to keep us constantly engaged, ultimately depriving us of the mental space we need.
We’re Getting Lazy
Specifically, our brains are getting lazy. With the internet offering a never-ending stream of information we can access within seconds, we no longer feel the need to remember things. While this makes life easier in the short term, it’s detrimental in the long run. We’re not exercising our brains the way we used to—or should. Technology is doing much of the heavy lifting for us. Generally speaking, we’re filling our heads with more trivial information and less meaningful content, whether it’s news, Instagram, or Facebook. We’re overwhelmed with information we can’t remember and don’t really need. The result? A cluttered mind and a diminished ability to focus. Ultimately, our minds get a break, but at a cost—emptiness. For the brain, breaking free from routine is essential.
The Disruption of Genuine Relationships and the Inability to Form New Ones
Unlike past generations, millennials (those born around or after 1984) have had to navigate the complexities of adolescence while also dealing with the rise of modern technology. They’ve adapted to these new tools quickly and effortlessly, even reveling in the “cool” factor. But these very technologies have stunted their ability to form deeper, lasting relationships. Social media platforms may offer fleeting moments of joy and bursts of positive energy, but they can’t substitute for real human interaction.
This year, a survey conducted by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement revealed that social media platforms—namely Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter—are inducing feelings of anxiety and inferiority among young people. According to the study, Instagram stands out as the most detrimental, negatively affecting sleep quality, performance, body image, and even instigating fears of social exclusion. However, experts also note that social media platforms can have positive impacts. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to decide how much they let themselves be influenced by this modern phenomenon.
Erosion of Self-Confidence and Immersion in a Self-Centered Virtual World
The fear of social exclusion, feelings of inferiority, and the anxiety that someone might perceive us differently contribute to an environment where we may lose out on friendships or experiences (FOMO – Fear of Missing Out). We may also believe that we’re missing out on something unique and irreplaceable. Whenever we become objects rather than subjects in our own narrative, it can negatively affect our self-esteem. On social media platforms, it’s unavoidable that we present ourselves in a curated manner, and the continuous comparison to the seemingly successful lives of others can lead to depression, anxiety, and reduced life satisfaction.
The fast-paced world we live in today, coupled with high expectations from older generations, doesn’t make the tumultuous journey through adolescence and aging any easier for young people. Often, they resort to social media platforms as a means to find momentary solace and relaxation. The release of dopamine, the same hormone responsible for the feelings of relaxation after smoking a cigarette, having a drink, or playing slot machines, becomes a point of reliance. What does this mean? Simply put, we’ve become addicted to our virtual worlds and online relationships. We feel the need to show others how well off we are, how great our lives are, who we’re friends with, and what we’ve achieved. How different and better we are. However, the moment we put down our phone, with its meticulously filtered, perfect world, reality sets in. It’s noteworthy that the use of most addictive substances is legally restricted to certain age groups, but social media, a new form of legal drug, isn’t age-restricted. It’s accessible to children of all ages, adding another layer of concern
Did you know that the presence of a mobile phone during a meeting, for example, affects the quality of conversation and communication? The presence of a phone reduces the quality of conversation, mainly because we are aware that we can be interrupted at any time. Some schools, such as those in France, have recently banned mobile phones. Increasingly, companies are also prohibiting the presence of phones during meetings to the extent that they shouldn’t even be visible.
IN CONCLUSION, A SUMMARY OF SOME BASIC RULES:
- Use social media sparingly, recognizing the risk of becoming addicted and the limitations it may impose on your life
- Learn to differentiate between reality and the virtual world. Social media often presents a distorted, superficial view of relationships, discussions, and life itself
- Value real, tangible things—relationships with friends and partners, both in personal and professional life, meaningful experiences, and achievements. Prioritize living in contact with people and nature
- Understand that most worthwhile endeavors require long-term effort, whether it’s maintaining relationships or excelling at work
- Exercise patience—both with yourself and others. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and no one becomes an expert overnight.
- Have a clear vision for your life. Know where you want to go, what you want to focus on, and be willing to work towards that.
- je dobré míti představu, jakým směrem se chci v životě vydat, na co s soustředit a pracovat na tom
- Believe in yourself and others. Self-confidence and the support of people around you are crucial. Social media can create a distorted, seemingly perfect world that can make people feel inferior and lead to psychological issues.
- Sometimes, allow yourself to be bored. Your brain needs downtime for healthy functioning.
- When you don’t feel like reading a book or learning something new, allow yourself to be bored. Just sit down and let your brain wander—it will find its way. The worst thing you can do is grab your phone and clutter your mind with thousands of posts from strangers you’ll forget about by the next day. This does engage your brain, but not in a constructive way. Instead, it numbs your mind and promotes laziness. Our brains have enormous capacity, and flooding them with trivial information is a waste of that potential.
How to Stay Sane in Today’s World?
The key is to pursue happiness. It’s the one thing we truly have, and it’s beyond anyone else’s control. Each morning when we wake up, we can choose what to seek and whether or not to feel happy—that’s the power our brains give us.
Unfortunately, modern society, shaped by technology and multinational corporations, focuses on doing more and more (more clients, more products), but there’s little discussion on redistributing resources or taking a moment to pause and enjoy the simple pleasure of being bored.
From a parenting perspective, the most significant challenge is to educate and connect with our children, not merely hand them a tablet. A parent’s happiness is often linked to how engaged they are with their kids.
Remember, no extreme is healthy. That’s why the motto is: everything in moderation.
Consider using your phone less and strive not to be addicted to it; focus more on the real world instead. Mobile devices and social media can pull you into an alternate reality, making it difficult to have an objective perspective on real life. Try going out for the evening without your phone—you’ll find it’s completely doable, and you might even feel better afterward. It’s beneficial to learn how to detach from your phone and the online world. We’re so tethered to our devices that we bring them everywhere, from the bathroom to the bedroom. Ask yourself, what’s the first thing you do when you wake up? Check your phone or have a meaningful conversation with your girlfriend or daughter? Consider leaving your phone in the living room overnight and invest in a good old-fashioned alarm clock!
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