Is social media changing our brains?

    Posted on November 17, 2017

     

    There’s no doubt that sites like Facebook and Twitter have revolutionised the way we communicate, but is social media actually making us think differently, and changing the dynamics of our minds?

    Two recent articles have suggested that the big two social media sites are creating challenges for our brains, forcing them to alter the way they operate.

    This week, Roger McNamee, who once invested in Facebook, claimed that users of the site had been ‘Zucked’, alluding to the name of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerburg. He believes that we are having our minds “altered” by the social media site, drawing particular attention to the recent rise in the estimated number of Facebook users who saw Russian propaganda in the run-up to last year’s U.S. presidential election.

    McNamee believes Facebook’s success has taken even its founders by surprise, but it has meant that a powerful database of two billion users has been created, which is affecting their brains in a way that “evolutionary defences” cannot handle.

    A similar suggestion of how social media is overriding the brains we have evolved and are born with came earlier this month from Esquire.com writer Luke O’Neil, who posits that Twitter is “affecting our mental health”. O’Neil notes that your news feed on any given day can include tragedy and comedy, banality and seriousness, truth and lies, all in one continuous stream, and that our minds are simply not developed enough to process this information overload.

    Are you being Zucked?

    An experiment you can do to get a grip of this is to go to your Facebook timeline or Twitter feed right now and have a look at what the top five posts on it are. My Facebook ones are:

    – A post about the new Stone Temple Pilots single
    – An appeal from Amnesty International to sign a petition to free British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
    – A picture of the Orion constellation
    – A satirical dig at Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt
    – Somebody looking for a solicitor recommendation

    Individually, I have no problem with any of these posts, but they are five completely different ideas all presented to me in small bursts, one after another. In the seconds it takes to scroll down, I’m confronted with arts and entertainment, immediately followed by oppression and an appeal towards my conscience. After that, I’m reminded of how small and insignificant I am in this vast and wondrous universe. Then I get a nice little giggle at an unpopular politician, and ending all this is a question from a friend in need.

    How do I prioritise these five pieces of information? Which is the most important? Obviously, you can’t put a price on freedom and the Amnesty International appeal seems the most serious news there, but do friends and those closest to you come first? What if I believe Jeremy Hunt to be responsible for injustice and believe the best catalyst for change is to spread satire directed at him? Maybe I should just be awestruck by the Orion and realise how insignificant this one fleeting moment is in this tiny pocket of an incomprehensively large universe? Perhaps I’ll just sack it all off and listen to the new Stone Temple Pilots single?

    The human brain is not really capable of swinging wildly from one emotion to the next this quickly. As a result, we skim read and the information we take in becomes diluted. If it didn’t, we would all drive ourselves crazy by actually thinking in depth about every single post and tweet we see. For the sake of our sanity, we have little choice but to become the ‘meh’ generation.

    This reminds me of an exhibition I saw at the Tate Liverpool gallery a few years ago of work by the photographer and video artist Gretchen Bender. I’m not a great authority on art, but this one struck a chord with me, perhaps because Bender directed music videos for several bands I like, such as REM, Babes in Toyland and New Order.

    Her videos are generally fast-paced, blink-and-you’ll-miss it affairs that contain bursts of film to do with popular culture, capitalism and injustice. It’s hard to take in and can leave you feeling overwhelmed, but if I interpreted it correctly, that was the point! The photography would show scenes like a field of bodies, but then sandwich it between such images as Coca-Cola adverts and stock market figures, representing the way that global tragedy has to compete with Western consumerism for our attention.

    Bender sadly died in 2004 – the same year Facebook was founded. It would have been interesting to see what she would have made of social media and how it has taken information overload, and the juxtaposition of popular culture and human struggle, to a whole new level.

    John Murray

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