Most people make a mad scramble for their phones when they hear an alert going off. Why? Because that little jolt of energy we feel when someone @mentions us on Twitter, Likes one of our posts on Facebook, or comments on our Instagram photos is actually the reward center of our brains getting a boost.


Could that little jolt explain why social media is so hard for people to resist? While it may all seem like harmless fun, just what does this constant influx of social feedback do to our brains?


The Chemical Highs of Social Media


Tweeting for just ten minutes increases oxytocin production in the brain. What is oxytocin? It is a hormone that reduces anxiety and increases feelings of trust and security. It is affectionately referred to as the “cuddle chemical. “ In one study, subjects saw oxytocin levels spike 13% during ten-minute tweeting sessions, the same spike experienced by brides and grooms on their wedding days.


Think about that for a moment – ten minutes of social media can have the same impact on the brain as a wedding ceremony.  That is truly intense, positive feedback. Considering most people only get married once (or twice) in a lifetime, but they spend time daily on social media, internet usage can create a constant chemical high in the brain. A high that is easily accessible and easy to replicate.


Is Social Media Changing Our Brains?


It should come as no surprise to most people that we are using the internet more and more each year, and social media is fuelling that increased internet usage. The average user spends 81 hours a year on Facebook, switches between devices 21 times an hour, and checks email 30 to 40 times an hour.


What effect does all of this social screen time have on our brains? For one thing, our attention spans are shortening.  In the year 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds. By 2013, it dropped to 8 seconds. That may not seem significant, but humans now have lower attention spans than goldfish, who clock in at 9 seconds.


It’s not just our attention spans that suffer at the hands of social media.  Many people argue that social media is having a negative effect on our ability to read and write, diminishes our ability to remember things, and fuels narcissism; hardly positive effects on our society at large.


From Communication to Addiction


It doesn’t stop there. Our social media apps are turning us into a nation of addicts. When our smartphones alert us to new messages, likes, and mentions, it lights up the same area of the brain stimulated by drugs like heroin and cocaine. Respondents in survey of adults from ages 18-85 said they found social media harder to resist than smoking, drinking, sleeping, and sex.  In fact, a 2011 study showed that giving up social media for just one day produced physical withdrawal symptoms similar to those of alcoholics and drug addicts.


Should We All Abandon Social Media?


Since it would appear that social media has a negative effect on our brains, it could be argued that we’d all be better off shutting down our accounts in favor of face-to-face interaction. However, social media is firmly entrenched in our everyday lives. Giving it up isn’t so easy, especially considering the proof that lack of access to social media can induce physical withdrawal.


Social media isn’t all doom and gloom, however. It allows us to stay connected to friends and family we’d otherwise lose touch with. It delivers useful news and information straight to our screens, and it gives us an outlet to share our feelings. The moral of the story? Everything in moderation. After all, a daily spike in a hormone that elicits the same feelings as a good snuggle can’t be all that bad for our mental health. The key it is to exhibit a little bit of good, old-fashioned self-control and know when to step away from the screen.