The Science Behind How Social Media Hacks Your Brain to Keep You Scrolling

Social media scrolling

We’re all vaguely aware that social media is addictive and problematic. Now, a new study has offered up new insights into exactly how social media effectively hacks the evolutionary circuits in your brain to keep you scrolling, affecting your mental health.

A new study from the University of Buffalo in New York has found that social media use both increases inflammation in the body and encourages further use in an attempt to soothe that inflammation.

“The relationship between social media use and inflammation may be a positive feedback loop, a cycle where more social media use leads to more inflammation, and more inflammation then leads to more social media use,” said Dr David S Lee, an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Buffalo and lead author of the study published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

Their data, taken from three studies of over 1,800 participants, has shown that people with high levels of inflammation, marked by increased levels of C-reactive protein, tend to use social media more. Inflammation in the body is typically high when we’re ill and that seems to contribute to a particular pattern of social media use.

“It seems that inflammation not only increases social media use, but our results show preliminary evidence that it’s also associated with using social media to specifically interact with other users, like direct messaging and posting to people’s pages,” Lee said.

“Interestingly, inflammation did not lead people to use social media for other purposes — for example, entertainment purposes, like watching funny videos.”

Websites and apps like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter (or X), have billions of users around the world. In Australia, it is thought that 81% of the population are regular social media users.

However, the explosion in the popularity of social media and the subsequent transformation of society has long drawn scepticism and criticism from science and mental health experts. Multiple studies have found a strong link between high social media use and increased risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicide.

The association is particularly bad amongst young people, who use social media far more frequently than older generations. Data from the Australian mental health organisation Headspace found that 57% of young people believed that their mental health was declining and that 42% of those blamed social media.

While we know that social media use is correlated with worse mental health, there has been less research into the more fundamental question of why people use social media in the first place. Previously, psychological reasons like boredom or loneliness have been attributed to social media’s attraction, but there is now a growing body of evidence to suggest that biology might play a much bigger role.

“Inflammation is typically followed by behaviours and symptoms associated with sickness that can help the body heal,” Less continued in a press statement.

“Humans are social beings, and when we’re sick or injured, it may be adaptive for us to approach others who can provide social support and care.”

The study suggests that part of the reason we’re drawn to social media is because it appeals to the social needs of humans, something that is heightened when we’re ill through the co-opting of our care-seeking instincts.

Inflammation is the body’s natural protection response to harm and comes in both acute and chronic forms. Acute inflammation occurs when we get an injury and white blood cells rush in to fight infection, causing redness and swelling. Chronic inflammation is caused by unwanted substances in the body that your immune system tries to get rid of, but it can also be caused by things like elevated cortisol levels, owing to stress.

Social media’s promotion of “compare and despair” attitudes is thought to be the primary stressor caused by these platforms and has been implicated in increased rates of depression and anxiety among users.

While research has primarily looked at the psychological impact of social media on mental health, there is now a growing body of scientific data linking its use to inflammation in the body. What this latest study now suggests is that social media may be the cause of, and solution to, biological stresses.

“To our knowledge, this is the first evidence showing the role of the immune system as a potential antecedent to social media use,” Lee said.

Related: Cut Down on Your Social Media Phone Time With This Simple Hack

Related: How Seeing War and Disaster Unfold in Real-Time Across Social Media Impacts Our Mental Health

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