Updated: Oct 17
Having made the leap from social and digital media to therapy, people frequently ask me whether activities like texting or scrolling social media are bad for our mental health. We know a lot about what our nervous systems need from relationships and how various mediums of digital connection fair in meeting those needs; as well as the physiological, emotional and cognitive impact of trying to get analog social needs met via digital networks. With the hope that a brief overview will empower you to make the best possible digital media consumption decisions for you, here’s a bit of the science behind what your social engagement system needs to stay healthy, as well as some tips to make sure you’re getting your daily, minimum dose.
ART BY STEVE CUTTS
To understand what we need, it is imperative to understand how we’re built. Until very recently (in evolutionary terms), our survival depended upon maintaining strong bonds with a small group of people, working together to stay safe, fed and healthy. Today, the humans we work with to pay the bills are rarely the humans who make us feel safe and understood. In fact, they may make us feel the opposite! While strong bonds play an increasingly small role in our daily survival, our nervous system is still operating under the assumption that close relationships are a biological imperative. Said another way, the release of the iSapien is thousands of years out. Until then, we’re stuck with Sapien.us.
If you read the user’s manual for the Sapien.us, you’ll discover that the nervous system relies on constant, positive signals from the touch, embrace, gaze, vocal tones, facial expressions and gestures of those around us. These signals tell our entire nervous system that we are safe within our troop. In turn, we remain calm and balanced. * When these signals are absent, our nervous system becomes chronically stressed, leading to hypertension, anxiety depression and other illnesses that result from chronic sympathetic activation. That’s why strong, social bonds are the most important predictor of longevity, beating out smoking, drinking and obesity, by a country-mile. *
Alarmingly, many of us report having few-to-no strong connections, or a severe lack of quality time with the few connections that we maintain. * While digital technologies can help us with the latter challenge, even the most cathartic face-time with a bestie robs us of the oxytocin releasing power of a hug, the regulating pulse of a heartbeat, or the parasympathetic activation of a relaxed jaw. Switch to a phone call, and all of the visual cues in the social engagement system are gone. Analyze a text message, and the social engagement system is completely absent! That’s why we like Emojis so much - if we can send each other faces, hands and feet, we aren’t completely disembodied!
Things get worse when we move from direct communication to passively consumption of an endless barrage of curated social media. To feel connected, we need permission to be vulnerable, to say: “This is the real me, right now” and hear “I see you, I care about you and I accept you” in return. * When humans lived in small villages and nomadic tribes, it was hard not to be real and transparent about how you were doing. Conversely; in today’s world, it requires bravery to make an authentic bid for acceptance, when everyone around you seems to be having a spill-free, blemish free, perfect hair day life on Instagram. For most of us, social media isn’t about broadcasting the scary, gross or mundane moments that are a part of being human, it is about fluffing our plumage and getting high volume, low quality validation in return. So, we slap a Disney Princess filter on our selfie, leaving our need for authentic connection unmet. We can’t be vulnerable unless we feel safe and feeling safe means unconditional acceptance.
When you look at social media's impact on the developing brain, the negative repercussions becomes more sinister. Humans have the awesome capacity to learn the rules of our environment and use our incredible dexterity to build things that make our environment more habitable. As such, our brains are not pre-programmed with instincts alone. Instead, we are sophisticated at tracing what gets positive and negative reinforcement (or no reinforcement at all) and build neural networks that run programs that prune away what isn't engaged (via a process called apoptosis) and deny or turn against what is rejected with guilt, shame and fear. For example, a child who does not receive cataract surgery by the age of one will never see, not because the eye hasn't been properly corrected, but because the necessary circuitry in the visual cortex was pruned away from lack of stimulation during development. You use it or you really do lose it when it comes to receiving proper stimulation as the brain as it develops pre-birth to age 26-30.*
Because the social engagement system (which tracks the visual, auditory and body proximity and communication of others) are not engaged in social media; not only is the brain less engaged in digital social interactions; as it develops, it is under-utilized and therefore under-developed, leading the order of magnitude increases of diseases associated with social sensory disorders and attention deficit disorders. In addition, while people think of dopamine as a happy chemical, it doesn't just make us feel good when we're developing; we associate the behavior with a developmental survival need. As such, if the need for positive social reinforcement is tied to followers on Instagram as the adolescent brain is developing; we falsely feel as though we NEED to be on Instagram or we become agitated and experience withdrawal.
If you’re still reading this post, I’ve either completely bummed you out; or, you’re searching for a technology-free commune to join ASAP. In reality, the majority of us cannot lead a lifestyle that makes our rather antiquated nervous system content, nor can we download an “I-don’t-need-relationships-patch.” That said, we can invest in coping strategies that will help our fancy primate plumbing run as smoothly as possible in a world full of blockages and barriers.
Here are three tips for maintaining a healthy, social engagement system:
If you don’t spend the majority of your day with people who provide social cues that you’re seen, safe and cared for; assume that you’re in a state of chronic sympathetic arousal. * While consistent access to at least 3 strong relationships is ideal, there are a bunch of non-social tools that help to restore sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, like yoga, singing (chanting at a low frequency is especially regulating), Chigong and Meditation (make sure there is significant breath work involved)
When the humans around you aren’t doing the trick, other species can step in to provide unconditional, positive regard. In fact, humans have co-evolved with certain domesticated animals (like dogs) to the degree that we activate each other’s oxytocin release systems consistently; * leading to a 10-year increase in longevity for the human involved.* So yes, I’m telling you to get a dog; or, at least to start volunteering at the SPCA once a week
Treat your relationships as imperative to your health, because they are! Save not sleeping, drinking water or eating, isolation will kill you faster than almost anything else. Knowing that we are increasingly anxious about getting close (and being vulnerable); it may take some courage to be the instigator of authentic community building. Wouldn’t it feel really good to be on the receiving end of this compliment: “There’s a lot of evidence that close relationships are imperative to your health. You are really important to me and your friendship is such a joy in my life. I know we’re both busy and it isn’t always easy, but spending time with you is a priority for me.” Being that vulnerable is scary, but essential if we hope to thrive.