Published in The Age 4th December 2014. By Katie Cincotta

What social media is doing to our brain is akin to what it’s doing to our phones – constantly running in the background, draining our charge and making us less responsive.

Social media has been accused of wiping away our table manners; diners seated with heads down, silent, screens scrolling, rather than conversing over a meal. Now the virtual playground is in the firing line not only for draining our batteries but for diminishing the quality of our human connections.

Tracking the phone data of 1 million Android users around the world in its App Trend Tracker Report, online security company AVG found that among Australians Facebook is having the biggest impact on phone performance, followed by Instagram, free calls and messaging, and a range of other apps.

Of the world’s greediest mobile apps, four of the top 10 were in the social media category, with Facebook, Instagram, Path and textPlus making the heaviest impact on battery life, data consumption and storage, joined by communication apps such as QQ and BBM, and multimedia apps 9GAG and Spotify.

Michael McKinnon, AVG Australia’s security adviser, says social networking apps tend to chew through battery life because many are in perpetual motion. “They want to alert you as soon as a message is available and they have to be in constant connection in order to notify you of that,” he says.

What the app performance report shows us, McKinnon says, is the penetration social media has in our lives. “Our obsession with social media is reflected in the performance of these apps; that they’re under a lot of strain to provide us with real-time updates, messages, check-ins. All that functionality comes at a cost of keeping your mobile device extremely busy trying to keep up with your social life.”

The phone’s performance isn’t the only thing to suffer as a result of our continual immersion in social networks.

Clinical psychologist Ben Buchanan says the constant use of mobile phones leads to brain drain – a mindlessness where people perform on autopilot without fully paying attention to what is happening in the real world.

“We know from the research that people who are constantly on their mobile phones have smaller brain regions that are associated with the regulation of attention [anterior cingulate cortex],” Dr Buchanan says. “We also know that the brain is like a muscle – the more we practice using particular parts, the bigger they become. So this research suggests that if people can learn to resist the temptation to check their phone and practice keeping their attention in the here and now, they may actually be able to grow their brain [anterior cingulate cortex], leading to better concentration and memory.”

Dr Buchanan, who lectures in psychology at Monash University, says many people might think Facebook is enhancing their social interactions, but research by the University of Essex concluded the opposite is true.

“We know that simply having a mobile phone in your pocket or on the table in front of you, even if you’re not touching it, reduces the quality of conversations. Just having a mobile phone switched on and near you is a distraction that reduces engagement and promotes fragmented attention.”

What social media is doing to our brain is akin to what it’s doing to our phones – constantly running in the background, draining our charge and making us less responsive.

Dr Buchanan runs group therapy sessions for people who want to reduce their stress. The course teaches to use meditation or quiet time rather than be being perpetually distracted. “I always find stressed out people are also distracted people,” he says.

He says the overuse of phones and social media can lead to a feeling of constantly being busy, which can damage the quality of our communication and relationships.

Unfortunately, the desire to reach for the phone may also be also contagious. According to research from the University of Michigan, a person is twice as likely to check their mobile if their companion does.

The study concluded the contagious effect of mobile phone use could be linked to the fear of social exclusion – enforcing a tribal need to belong.

Rising phone reliance has also contributed to “Phantom vibration syndrome” – a person feels their phone vibrating or ringing when it’s not – the digital equivalent of a person who has lost a limb but is still able to sense the absent body part. The phone as an extension of self – imagine how much fun Freud would have had with that!