Feeling happy that you connected with an old friend on Facebook?  That’s oxytocin.

Feeling excited that your Instagram posts are better than those of your circle? That’s serotonin.

Did those ten new followers on twitter make your day?  That’s dopamine.

 Is being connected making us more disconnected?
Is being connected making us more disconnected?

Your brain is full of neurotransmitters that continuously change and regulate how you feel. Engaging in social media may seem innocuous and straightforward, but these activities affect certain neurotransmitters – making you feel happy, sad, or a combination of both.

Once being engaged in social media becomes a regular activity – these seemingly normal activities could cause a downward spiral into sadness or depression.

Neurotransmitters and Social Media

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in the brain’s reward reinforcement and pleasure centers.  The pleasant feeling that you get when dopamine levels are elevated motivates you to continue performing the action that brought about the surge of dopamine.

Eating, sex, and most other things necessary to our survival increase dopamine levels. Actions that benefit you, or your community, also increase dopamine levels. Dopamine conditions us to perform operations or activities necessary for survival, or for a better life.

Posting on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and getting likes elevates the dopamine in your system. It makes you want to keep posting, in the hopes of getting acknowledged or rewarded (likes). You had your first taste – now you’re hooked!

A little too extreme? Cocaine is addictive because it floods the brain with dopamine – tricking your brain and conditioning you to take it again and again. Social media similarly affects your brain but in smaller doses. It might not seem addictive, but the constant reward and reinforcement slowly influence your life.

When you feel that you have this need to check your phone or tablet many times a day – then it becomes a problem.

Quick Fix: Get your dopamine somewhere else. Dopamine is released as a reward for finishing or achieving something – so go and finish something. Completing small tasks or achieving small goals will motivate you more into continuing to do those activities.

Run for distance in small increments, learn to play a particular song, or lose 1 or 2 pounds every month – all these activities increase your dopamine levels. Finish a good book, go sight-seeing – whether it’s a physical or social activity, you’ll feel better as a result.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that acts similar to a neurotransmitter. It governs your circadian rhythm or your sleep-wake cycle. It induces sleep, and it is known to modify the time you fall asleep, and the time you wake up.

Typing on your computer, or browsing your tablet at night – suppresses the production of melatonin. This delays your sleep cycle and robs you of a few hours of sleep. Lack of sleep leaves you tired, irritable, unable to concentrate, and prone to stress – which could have adverse effects on your family, friends, and career.

Continuous nights of inadequate sleep leads to feelings of anxiety, anger, sadness, and overall mental exhaustion – which could lead to depression or exacerbate conditions.

Quick Fix: Get a dose of sunshine. That means real sunlight; office lights don’t have the same effect – you’ll also be hit with a dose of serotonin so double the result.

Have a relaxing bath, or a warm cup of milk before you go to bed. Avoid artificial lights, especially LEDs, a couple of hours before turning in. Use candlelight and yellow light, as they don’t disrupt your sleep-wake cycle. If you do need to use a computer or tablet late at night, try turning on the night shift mode which removes the blue tone from the screen. If your device doesn’t have this built in, then you can get apps that do this for you.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that affects social interaction. It plays roles in sexual reproduction and bonding between family members or between friends. Feelings of trust, generosity, empathy, and altruism are all attributed to oxytocin.

When we make physical contact with a loved one by hugging or kissing, oxytocin levels increase. It plays a considerable role in bonding between couples, which is why it is called the “love hormone.”  When you feel loved and accepted – that’s oxytocin at work.

Connecting with a friend on social media elevates levels of oxytocin, and can bring about a mild feeling of joy. Chatting with a loved one on a messenger app or having a conversation with a crush on a video call can elevate your oxytocin to varying degrees.

Connecting to one hundred friends or followers on social media – does raise your levels of oxytocin – but it doesn’t compare to having a real face-to-face conversation with a friend or loved one. The more time and effort you invest in a person or a relationship, the deeper the connection it brings – and the more elevated your oxytocin levels become.

When you become engrossed in social media – to the detriment of your “real world” friends – your oxytocin levels take a hit. Though you may feel accepted online, there is no replacement for actual human interaction.

For all the feelings of love and acceptance oxytocin gives, it also brings about not so positive feelings. Oxytocin intensifies memories of failed relationships. Those feelings of shame and anxiety brought about by a public mishap? Yup, oxytocin. It makes you remember how sad you were, or how socially awkward you were – until you get into a relationship or raise your social standing; things you have to do in the real world.

The feeling of being in a group is also caused in part by oxytocin. This brings about negative feelings to those outside of the group. Oxytocin bonds those with similar traits or shares similar characteristics – causing favoritism and prejudice.

Quick Fix: Get together with friends or loved ones. Meet a friend for a cup of coffee or tea – even for just an hour or two. Spend time with your siblings, your parents, or your kids – you’ll feel better, and so will they.

Having real conversations and actual physical contact will do wonders for your oxytocin production. Share a warm embrace with a friend, or cuddle up to your significant other. Being with a handful of friends and spending time with them is better than casually commenting on the posts of 100+ acquaintances.

Serotonin

Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being. It regulates your mood and controls anxiety and depression.

High levels of serotonin boost your mood – making you happy and energetic. It feels like a real ray of sunshine – or the happiness you feel while running. Which is why being outdoors makes people happy.

Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression and lethargy. It makes you have negative thoughts and feel irritable. Anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders – even obesity and alcohol abuse – are related to serotonin disorders

This is the tricky part; being content and having a happy outlook raises your serotonin levels. Being proud of yourself and what you have achieved also does wonders for your serotonin levels.

Social media can impact self-worth negatively – and consequently drops serotonin levels. You see other people’s posts and compare them with your own life – and you find yourself lacking.

Social media unintentionally cultivated a culture of envy and inadequacy – making people think that their lives were less happy and less significant than their peers. Most people choose to share only the “highlights” of their life – making them seem happier and more successful than they are.

When you see a photo of a happy family on vacation on some beach, you can’t help but compare their experience with how you spent your day.

Quick Fix: Get a dose of sunshine or go for a run or walk – better yet, run in the sun! Maybe that short run can put things in perspective – and raise your serotonin levels.

Having a positive outlook and feeling good about yourself can help increase serotonin, giving you a positive mental state.

Social Media and Depression

 

Though it may connect you with more people, social media also isolates you. You trade away smiles and comforting hands for likes and shares. You might not notice at first, but this causes a deep sense of loss and longing.

Social media feeds off an illusion of grandeur that masks as everyday life. You share your life with others, but know it’s not all that good. You look at other people’s lives and think you are so worse off. This exacerbates feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, sadness, and depression.

Social media feeds off an illusion of grandeur that masks as everyday life.
Social media feeds off an illusion of grandeur that masks as everyday life.

 

Worse of all, it takes time away from you and those who are close to you. Those couple of hours spent on social media could have been used talking to a friend or playing with your kids. Instead of idling on your tablet, you could have read a book, swam a few laps at the local pool or gone for a walk.

Social media is dangerous because it rewards you for posting and getting likes (dopamine). It makes you feel artificially connected (oxytocin) – even if you are isolated deep inside. It makes you feel bad about yourself (serotonin) as you vicariously live the life of your friends.

Having an online persona is taxing on both your time, energy, and emotional stability.

You should spend more time with your loved ones and friends, in the real world. I am not saying you should give up social media. Not at all, it can be fun if used in moderation, but stripping it back can have a positive impact on your own life.

Taking Accountability

 

These are the feelings that I have been having recently. I use Facebook for fun and Twitter for my business. On Facebook, at one point I had over 500 friends but were these real friends? I had a mixture of family, close friends, current colleagues, old colleagues, people from university and school. A lot of these people I will never see again in the “real world,” yet they are all posting on Facebook and appearing in my feed. Some people I know in the real world as having rather shitty lives and they complain a lot, but on Facebook, they seem to have amazing and positive experiences being portrayed all the time. For these particular people, and naturally, I will not single them out in this post, these posts on Facebook are just an illusion, they are false and having your news feed littered with this is not healthy.

Put your phone away and hang with friends in the real world.
Put your phone away and hang with friends in the real world.

 

I feel I am quite lucky, I have never had depression, and I am a generally positive person, but I can easily see how someone more vulnerable could be affected by these fake feelings (or fake friend news) on social networks. I am not just singling out Facebook here; this applies to any social network. I use Facebook as an example as this is the network I use the most.

I recently decided to reduce my “friends” lists on Facebook. I believe the kids these days call it a cull. I set some simple criteria for doing this.

  • Family and close friends: If you are family on mine or my wife’s side, then you naturally stay on the list. Close friends, who we see and hang out with in the real world also stay.
  • Old work co-workers: Again, if I still meet you regularly in the real world you stay, or if I got on with you a lot, you stay. All the rest I removed; I have you on LinkedIn anyway (which I hardly use). It’s nothing personal.
  • If I bumped into you on the street: If I would be happy to go for a coffee or a beer with you there and then you would stay. If I would hide behind a phone box, or cross the street to hide from you, you are removed.
  • Complainers or the overly political: Any of the above criteria can be overruled. If you are a habitual complainer, who brings down the atmosphere, or I know you are just being fake or are using the platform as a political soapbox (either left or right wing), then you get removed, even if you are a friend or family.

That last point about a political soapbox is an interesting one; I use Facebook for fun (memes and jokes) and to keep family informed on how the kids are doing as I have family all over the world. I have had some people on Facebook who I really like and respect, but every post seems to be about politics. The odd rant every now and again is fine, I even do it myself, but if it is persistent, then it just gets depressing to read. I had one person who literally posted about Trump and Brexit 10 times a day, even though he was not American or from the UK, and that just got irritating very quickly, so I had to remove him, even though he was someone I respect.

I have now pruned my friends list down to around 130 people now, and these are all people that I interact with in the real world or get on with.  My experience of using Facebook since has been much more positive as Facebook now serves, for me at least, as an extension to the real world and not just a virtual environment of fake friendships. From now on I will be doing a much more considered job of moderating my friend’s list.

So, there you have it. These are just my thoughts on social networks and the effect they can have on you. We are still in an infancy stage for social media, and we are still working out how it will fit into our lives. I think I have learned a lot about using sites like Facebook and these are informing my decisions on how to use it in the future. At some point my kids will also want to start using social sites, they are still a way off from that yet, but I hope that from my own experiences, I can help guide them on how to use it safely.

This post represents my own personal opinion on the subject. How do you feel about social media? Have you found yourself getting depressed with it? I would like to know your thoughts, so please comment below and share your story or opinion, even if you disagree with what I have written.

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