Social media is rotting your brain

Alan Scarpa
Jan 15, 2019 · 7 min read

Yes, it really is.

There’s that itch again. You know the one. It’s the itch that pops up after you’ve been sitting at your desk for twenty minutes or so. It’s the one that nudges you away from focus and towards the delicious dopamine only found in your favorite distraction.

The scratch for your itch is a quick peek at your phone. Just a quick scroll to see what’s happening on Instagram. Or maybe Facebook, if you still don’t care about them letting companies read your private messages. Maybe your scratch of choice is Snapchat, Reddit, or Tinder. That’s the beauty of the scratch; it’s your perfectly personalized drug of choice.

You know that you should ignore the itch. “It will go away on its own,” you tell yourself. Except it doesn’t. Another 3 seconds of introspection passes. You should keep working. You should stay focused. But that itch is worse than a fresh mosquito bite on a humid summer night.

You pick up your phone and open your favorite app. You give it a few “harmless” scrolls, heart something here, and comment something there.

Ah, the itch has been scratched!

Congratulations — you just damaged your brain’s ability to concentrate!

Every time you impulsively reach for your phone to get a dose of dopamine, you weaken your brain’s ability to concentrate. You’ve started to rot your brain.

Social media is literally rewiring our brains to multitask, leaving American citizens unable to focus on one topic at a time….Unfortunately, social media seizes our attention only to scatter it.

What’s happening is that as our brain is getting rewired by the media that we keep consuming, it is becoming less able to focus on one task. This puts us in a constant state of multi-tasking, leaving us little ability to focus.

This not only affects our ability to do productive work, but it can have an effect on our relationships as well. If we have one foot out the door and one foot in our phone, then how can we be genuinely contributing to our relationships with friends, family, and spouses? A lot of us are guilty of this. You’ve probably even watched this scene play out in a restaurant: A lovely couple embracing their phones, silently cloaked in the dim glow of their screens, as their soup goes cold, and the conversation is barely a mutter.

Now you might think that decreasing our ability to concentrate and disconnecting us from our relationships is all there is to it.

But you would be wrong. There’s more.

Here, take a look at this:

The Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of the brain monitors social needs by releasing dopamine when we achieve social success and neurochemical deficits when we don’t. Tragically, social media is not the VTA’s friend.

This means that your brain is being manipulated every time you get a new follower, a new like, or a new message. Your VTA thinks you are accomplishing a healthy social life because that’s what it “feels” like. Your VTA does not “think” so it does not know that you are, in fact, sitting alone on your couch isolated from the genuine social interaction which we humans need. This misguidance then leads us towards continued isolation which will eventually create feelings of loneliness.

In a survey exploring social media patterns, it was found that individuals who spent more time on social media every day felt lonelier than those who spent less time engaged in social media.

This is only one half of the VTA coin. The other side of it is that when people leave us negative comments or people don’t respond to our messages or our photo only gets 4 likes, our brain reacts like it is perceiving an actual threat. Once again, this part of our brain (VTA) is not a “thinking” part. Instead, it understands that the stimuli is negative and reacts in a similar way to a tribe member being shunned by the tribe. This releases a hearty helping of good ol’ fashioned stress.

The physiological cues that the VTA uses to determine social status from negative social media experiences are the same as those occurring in our ancestor’s brains when the tribe banished them.

Let’s recap the nefarious effects of social media on our poor brains:

  1. It damages our ability to concentrate and focus
  2. It makes us feel lonely
  3. It stresses us out

These side-effects of social media use are truly powerful. They beg the question, “is it worth it?” If those reasons are not enough, here’s a quick rundown of a few additional sprinkles you get with social media usage:


You don’t have to delete your Instagram or your Facebook (but you really should delete your Facebook…but that’s a topic for another day).

So here’s my suggestion to you (and it is a 2-pronged approach): Battle the Urge + Fill the Void

1. Battle the Urge

And each time you get the itch to check your phone, use this little trick, and tell yourself: “Ok, I’ll check it in 20 minutes.” You’ll be surprised how many 20 minute segments pass by.

This will help rebuild your focus and your ability to concentrate.

If you want to be more extreme, delete the apps off of your phone. You don’t have to delete the accounts, but removing the easy access will make it harder for you to check them every 5 seconds. You might then realize how insignificant these products really are to your life when you see that you don’t actually miss those apps that much.

If you decide to keep the apps on your phone, force yourself to use them responsibly. Limit your usage to 20 minutes a day — and pick 1 time of day that you are allowed to use them. For example, you will check social media for 20 minutes on your lunch break and that’s it. The truth is, you don’t really need to be learning what everyone is doing all throughout the day. Especially when all you’ll be learning is what Carol’s latte looks like and what your estranged uncle REALLY thinks of today’s political landscape.

Lastly, understand that we have limited time here on this fascinating planet and altering our brains for the small rush of dopamine triggered by a fabricated facade known as your news feed is a heavy price to pay.

2. Replace The Void

This “something else” will be different for everyone.

When you are focused on a task or spending time with people, continue to focus on that. This will cultivate that attention span that you’ve lost. But when you are just relaxing and you get the itch, what do you do now?

Look at this as an opportunity! There are a couple great options to exercise when you’re feeling the impulse to check your Instagram. Try one of these activities instead:

  • Read 3 pages from a book. I am making an assumption here, but if you made it this far, I bet you enjoy reading. So, instead of scrolling through Instagram, pick up a book and read 3 pages. You can handle that. Need a new book? Don’t procrastinate — just pick up a best-seller really quick:
  • Take one small productive action towards a goal you have for yourself. For example, this year you want to learn Spanish. Open up a language learning app and spend 10 minutes running through exercises. Or maybe you want to start a new business. Instead of watching someone else’s dreams happen on social media, take 10 minutes to make progress towards your own. If keeping track of your goals and staying motivated to achieve them is something you’re looking for, then check out this free e-mail app I made called Intent:
  • Do something creative. You might not consider yourself a creative person, but stimulating your brain in a creative way will not only make you forget about the itch, but it will also stretch muscles in your brain that will absolutely benefit you. Try some entopic graphomania!

Now that you’ve come this far, let’s be honest.

Social media has some legitimate value. It is pleasant to see what cherished friends and family members are up to. It is sweet to see photos of your niece. And everyone loves a good puppy photo.

But, as I said, let’s be honest.

Most of us get sucked deep into the social media black hole. These apps are designed to be addictive. You may open it up to see that cute photo of your friend’s new puppy, but 100 memes later, you and your brain have fallen victim.

Now you know, the next time you get the itch, the scratch ain’t worth it.

I’m the co-founder of a political product’s brand called, Feelin’ Radical. We make unique products and apparel to help people express their progressive values. Come join us!

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Alan Scarpa

Written by

Contact me on Twitter: @alanscarpa

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +665K people. Follow to join our community.

Alan Scarpa

Written by

Contact me on Twitter: @alanscarpa

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +665K people. Follow to join our community.

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