Is social media changing our brain?

By June 18, 2015 No Comments

It’s an interesting question, and one that’s brought about a few contesting arguments in recent times. However, if you took every word of neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield’s work as gospel, you couldn’t do much but agree that it is – and not in a good way.

Her presentation at London’s Barbican theatre last night attempted to address this issue – albeit from a not-so-neutral standpoint – asking us to consider the lasting implications of a society that yields completely to the ubiquity of digital technology.

Seeing as these technologies have only achieved prominence in the last 30 years, it’s too early to assert what impact they’re having

Since publicising her opinions, the Baroness has attracted a fair bit of media attention, inspiring worrisome newspaper headlines such as “Social websites harm children’s brains”. (Before any parents reading this immediately ban their kids from Twitter, you should know this one was from the Mail Online.) She also had this to say about Facebook, printed in The Telegraph in 2013:

“The ‘you’ externally constructed by Facebook may not allow much time and opportunity for internal memories to mature, nor private reflections to develop into a fully-fledged, individual mind.”

Dumbing down

I appreciate this is a topic that deserves more scrutiny than a 45-minute talk (plus a 10-minute Q&A) allows, so the lack of supporting evidence to Susan’s claims last night might be more linked to time constraints than anything else. Nevertheless, to my mind, this did seem to be the fundamental stumbling block.

I take her argument that the development of children’s minds is being curtailed by attention-span-reducing video games, and empty social media interactions, and movies that filter down complex social values to good vs. evil. However, seeing as these technologies have only recently achieved public prominence in the last 30 years or so, I’d say it’s too early to assert what impact they’re having exactly.

The science

What Susan did offer by way of supporting evidence was her decades of neuroscientific research. Opening her talk with a brief lecture on the workings of the human brain we discovered that the prefrontal cortex is the section responsible for cognitive behaviour, decision-making, and personality expression. From what I understood, this means it helps you ruminate on subjects and shapes your personality through its perception of experiences.

We also learnt that dopamine is a chemical your brain releases as you undergo highly sensory experiences (like watching an action movie or playing Grand Theft Auto or skydiving while playing Grand Theft Auto), and an imbalance of it can cause your prefrontal cortex all sorts of bother. Susan opines that the knock-on effect of this is a brain less able to fully function; one that becomes dependent on (almost addicted to) these technological prompts.

Social media seems to appeal to our baser characteristics, like vanity

The social aspect

Reverting back to social media, Susan spoke about how it seems to appeal to our baser characteristics, like vanity for example. Surely this is clear enough from the exhausting amount of selfies that pop up on the average Facebook feed nowadays.

To round off my thoughts on this matter, just as Susan did, I’m going to ignore any of the positive effects social media has had on society and give my heavily biased opinion free from any supportive evidence to back it up.

Even though it’s amazing how social networks can connect us with people we never would have been able to connect with otherwise – people living in a completely different culture on the other side of the world – it’s important to remember how fleeting these interactions can be.

What does it matter how many ‘likes’ you get? Or if you have 500 pseudo friends? What real value does it add to anything? And, I guess, thinking about what I do for a living, this goes for businesses too. You don’t want to overlook the value of genuine engagement and instead seek out vanity metrics. Brands should be about representing the human side of your business, not simply acting as your shop front in the digital world.

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