Your Brain 101: Social Media and the Brain – Is It Addiction or Just Good Marketing?

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Have you ever felt a sense of unease if you weren't able to check your phone regularly? Or had a little burst of pleasure when friends and colleagues "liked" something you posted online? How and why you feel that way is no accident.

Here to talk with us about brain hacking is Dr. Jesse Corry, a neurologist at Allina Health's United Hospital.
Your Brain 101: Social Media and the Brain – Is It Addiction or Just Good Marketing?
Featured Speaker:
Jesse Corry, MD
Jesse Corry, MD, is board certified in critical care and neurology, and serves as a neurologist at Allina Health’s United Hospital in St. Paul. His clinical interest is in the stroke continuum of care.

Learn more about Jesse Corry, MD
Printable Version

Melanie Cole (Host): Have you ever felt a sense of unease if you weren’t able to check your phone regularly or had a little burst of pleasure when friends and colleagues liked something you posted online? How and why you feel that way is no accident. Here to talk with us about brain hacking, is Dr. Jesse Corry. He’s a Neurologist at Allina Health’s United Hospital. Welcome to the show, Dr. Corry. What does that mean, brain hacking? We hear about it a little bit in the media, what does that mean?

Dr. Jesse Corry (Guest): Well, thanks for having me, Melanie. Brain hacking is this term that has been used to describe the engineering practice of technologists, software developers, to try to – in short, get you hooked on the application. They do things in order to help make you want to come back to use that phone -- to feel a little nervous if you don’t use the phone through different times when they would release the likes or the little bells and whistles they’ll put on there to make you nervous or happy with your phone use.

Melanie: Wow, so this was sort of engineered as a way to get us to really need to do that or want to do that because that’s how they sell their apps?

Dr. Corry: Correct, it’s – there’s actual conditioning that’s going on, on behalf of these developers of software. There is – over the last several months and years there’s been more and more evidence that people are trying to engineer these things to make you feel more stressed or to make you feel happy or to make you have more of a reward sensation when using that application. We need to keep in mind when we go, and we’re using a social media platform, it’s almost as though we’re going to use it for free because the real commodity is our eyeballs. The people who advertise on these things really want us to see their advertisements. The more we’re on that social media platform, the more we’ll see, the more we’re likely to purchase those items.

Melanie: That’s amazing, so they leveraged our brains --

Dr. Corry: Um-hum, yeah.

Melanie: To work -- to provoke that neurological response – that desire – almost the bell-meat thing?

Dr. Corry: Correct, there are actually a number of firms in technology right now, and they focus on how to better manipulate through neuroscience, technology, and software. You can go online – there are a number of articles in the Wall Street Journal, CBS News, et cetera, that talk about this interface now, between neuroscience and technology.

Melanie: How would someone know if they’ve got a social network addiction? What does that look like, and are we – do we want to do something about it? Is it similar to an addiction to anything else?

Dr. Corry: Okay. I think the first thing to start is – okay, is there a diagnosis of social media addiction? Right now, it falls under the covering of what we call behavioral addiction. The Diagnostic Manual of Psychiatric Diseases at this time does not have a firm Facebook or social media addiction diagnosis, but it’s considered in the category of behavioral addiction.

And like many other addictions, the things we look for in individuals are: are they starting to use that technology in a way that’s beyond volitionally – maybe almost subconscious use. Are they almost in need of that technology in order to have them feel pleasure? Do they use the technology more and more? Are they developing a tolerance to this? When they cut themselves off from technology, is there kind of a relapse – when they take some time off, when they relapse they start using it more and more. I think the most important thing is, is there a conflict? Is that person because of technology, missing out on those offline experiences – those offline relationships? Is it causing difficulty for the individual using the technology and the people in their life who they have relationships with?

Melanie: So it’s really – basically, as you’re saying, Dr. Corry, it’s the same parameters as really any addiction. Is it affecting your life – the quality of your life? I-E are you checking Facebook while you’re trying to reach your child a bedtime story?

Dr. Corry: Correct.

Melanie: And for our teens and our kids, what do you recommend? I mean, you’re an expert in so many things, and you’re a neurologist. What do you recommend for our teens? I’m asking you not only as the person interviewing you but as the mother of two teenagers, how do we break this cycle as if they were starting to drink and do drugs? Is there a way to kind of break this up a little bit?

Dr. Corry: When I think about this, I kind of start thinking what’s going on in the brains of the people they studied who have these social media addictions or these bad habits. They find that the part of the brain that drives impulse, right – that desire to go and do that – that is kind of accentuated. That is made to be more powerful than it should be. And why that’s concerning, particularly with young people, is that as we get older, we learn both the cure and the stick. As we get older, we learn the consequences of our actions, but children and teens, in particular, their brains are wired to learn best from positive feedback, right? If they’re getting those likes and they’re getting them in those bundles, right, where they’re getting 30 likes at a time, that is going to be a very positive experience for them. They are going to go ahead and -- that’s going to be a more potent reinforcement than punishing the child and saying, “Hey, we’re going to ground you on this.”

When I look at that, I realize that okay, there’s almost that sugar high that young people are going to get. I think the first thing that people really need to – your children need to do is to set boundaries, right? There are applications on phones people can use to say how much time they’re spending, but to set boundaries. We all have to use the internet for whether it be research, or school, or work, what have you, so making sure that you’ve got goals when you go on the internet and what you’re going to do. You try not to deviate from those goals, and yeah, if you make your goals then reward yourself with some online time. In my family, my kids, they actually have to do chores around the house, and go to activities, and do well in school. We have this little gold coin game where the kids can then – if they get so many gold coins they get so much screen time then for Facebook, or YouTube, or what have you. That’s one mechanism.

The other thing is – and this is part of when people do have an addiction, one of the things they can use – the tools they can use to help get themselves off of the addiction or try to rehabilitate is rationalized why you’re using this. Understand why you’re trying to put this post or that post on your social media platform, and think about the consequences of that use.

Melanie: Do you think that it will – if we’re able to cut back on constantly checking in and this need that we have – and even for people who have to answer their e-mails right away and that sort of thing. Do you think that this could help us reduce our stress levels -- cortisol, all these anxiety hormones that we get? Or do you think that it will cause more if we cut back?

Dr. Corry: No, I think we definitely need to cut back, and the reason I say this is kind of two-fold. Number one, there has been a number of studies over the last year that has looked at the connection between the brain and stress and the development of heart disease, stroke, blood vessel, hardening, and whatnot. They found that people who are more stressed, who have a higher metabolic activity of a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is kind of the stress-driven in people. When that little part of your brain – when that amygdala is more active, you’re more prone towards the hardening of the arteries and the consequences thereof, such as heart disease, stroke, and what have you.

We know, too, from other studies that people who are higher on that social media addiction spectrum, they have larger amygdalas.

Melanie: Really?

Dr. Corry: Does larger necessarily mean more active? Not necessarily, but we see that people who have this part of the brain more active, larger, will have more stress. They’re going to be more risk for complications of stress like heart disease and stroke.

Melanie: Wow.

Dr. Corry: That’s the first thing to be really concerned about. The other thing is in medicine and many other fields; people are trying to cut down on the beeps and whistles because people become immune to them. They don’t respond to them like they should. If it’s causing stress and it’s not really improving the situation, and people are ignoring them for the beeps and whistles we don’t want to have like you have an e-mail or something. That I think requires to sit back and say, “Okay, how do we make technology work for us as opposed to us working for technology?”

Melanie: That’s a great way to think about it. Dr. Corry, for those who do feel that social media is taking up too much time whether it’s Instagram, or Snap Chat, or Facebook, or Twitter, or any of these other things, what do you want them to do to start reducing the amount and to really kind of whine themselves off of some of these things?

Dr. Corry: Yeah, and I think that we can take some advice from other forms of behavioral addiction like internet addiction and whatnot, and look at the things like – number one, justify what you have to do and why you have to do it, so you have a very clear goal, and what your purpose is to be on the internet, so you don’t stray from that. Number two, social media – this is a very – this is an awesome thing we have. We can keep in contact with friends now; we made as children. That’s the real driver of a lot of social media is to maintain those offline relationships, so use it for that. Don’t go lurking on people’s Facebook trying to find different things about the person. If you want to use it to maintain a relationship, use it like you would a regular relationship. Use it to say something positive about this person.

The other thing people can do is they can talk to people who their Facebook use or their social media use affects. If a person is in a relationship with somebody else and that partner is saying, “Your use of social media is really affecting the time between us,” talk with that person, understand why they feel that way. That kind of feedback, which is oftentimes missing from social media platforms, is invaluable for a person to understand the consequences of their actions. There is some evidence that certain medications may be of help to people who things like rationalization and therapies aren’t enough for, but still in the very early stages of the study.

Melanie: What are some of your final thoughts on the healthy use of social media? And also for our teens, is there anything really good about it?

Dr. Corry: I think social media is there to help us maintain those offline relationships. I think that’s great. It should be used for things of that nature. I think for people who are industries upon themselves – celebrities, athletes, and whatnot – it’s good to help maintain that positive image. It’s good to help promote causes that you feel passionate about. I think these are all great things that social media can be useful for. We need to be mindful that all actions have consequences, and we need to make sure that when we want to post something or say something, we do so in a way that’s mindful of how it reflects on us as well as how it will affect other people. I think as we, as a society, move forward, there’s going to be – we need to start having a little better etiquette as far as how we use social media and how we interact with people on this medium on this platform.

Melanie: I think you’re absolutely, 100% right, and so it’s definitely something that as individuals, we can work with our family and friends, right?

Dr. Corry: Um-hum.

Melanie: And try and convince them of these positive things and play this podcast for them because you’ve just explained it so well.

Dr. Corry: Oh, thank you, so much.

Melanie: Thank you so much, Dr. Corry, for being with us, today. You’re listening to the Well Cast with Allina Health. For more information, you can go to, that’s This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.