A Neurologist Breaks Down The Biology Of Social Media Addiction, And How To Heal It

mbg Contributor By Leigh Weingus
mbg Contributor
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.

Photo by Paff

Which apps do you compulsively check on your smartphone, even when you know there's nothing new? If they're the ones that help you communicate with people or check up on what they're doing—think Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat—you're not alone. According to a new study published in Frontiers in Psychology, the most addictive functions on our smartphones are the ones that tap into our desire to connect with others.

So while many of us worry that smartphones may be making us antisocial, they're actually tapping into our inherent human need to socialize. But are we achieving the desired effect when we scroll through our Instagram feeds for hours? Probably not. "In post-industrial environments where foods are abundant and readily available, our cravings for fat and sugar sculpted by distant evolutionary pressures can easily go into insatiable overdrive and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease," explains lead researcher Samuel Veissière. "The pro-social needs and rewards [of smartphone use as a means to connect] can be similarly hijacked to produce a manic theatre of hyper-social monitoring."

How smartphones provide us with a false sense of connectivity.

Although our smartphone apps don't provide us with real social connection, we keep coming back to them over and over again. As neurologist Ilene Ruhoy explains it, this is because each time we open these apps we get a rush of connection. "Our mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway is stimulated when we connect with other people," she explains. "It makes us feel good, it makes us feel loved and cared for. And that feeds the reward systems of our brain, releasing happy neurotransmitters. It also feeds our soul. Smartphones allow us to get the connection—that rush, if you will—quickly. And that, over time, allows us to get the 'high' feeling more often in a short period of time. And that becomes addicting in and of itself. So, in my opinion, it is both the connection and the smartphone in its capability of rewarding us in a shorter amount of time."

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How excessive smartphone use impacts our mental health.

In addition to providing a false sense of connection, studies have shown that excessive smartphone use has a negative impact on our mental health. As reported in mbg's 2018 wellness trends, although we may be craving social connection, research shows that the opposite actually happens, and that the more social media platforms we engage with the more stressed out we become.

Other research has found that young people are especially vulnerable to changes in brain chemistry when they spend too much time with their smartphones, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression, drowsiness, and even increased suicide risk. "We’ve become so dependent on our smartphones to fulfill our need for connection that we are missing out on many opportunities to connect with people in real life," explains therapist Nathalie C. Theodore. "This leads to an overall sense of loneliness."

Plus, it doesn't help that it's now easier than ever to check up on your ex after the two of you have broken up—and continuously being reminded of her or him makes it a lot harder to get over it.

How to put your smartphone down and start connecting with others.

Believe it or not, it is possible to break your smartphone addiction and even cultivate a healthy relationship with it. Consider turning off notifications when possible, or try picking a set amount of time in your day to completely turn your phone off. Or, as Theodore suggests, simply put your phone away when with others.

"Put your phone away when you’re in someone else’s company," she says. "You’ll be surprised at how hard it is at first! We’ve become so attached to these devices that it’s common for people to feel the need to check their phones in the middle of a conversation with friends or family. Try to let go of that urge to check in with your virtual world, and focus on being present so you can enjoy the company of the person sitting right next to you instead."

Working on improving your relationship with your smartphone? Here's a guide to setting healthy boundaries.

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