The Neuroscience of Instagram

Instagram boasts over 1.28 billion active users; it’s the fourth most popular social media platform after YouTube, WhatsApp, and Facebook. But as it turns out, Instagram’s surge and unprecedented success in a sea of failed social media networks (we’re looking at you, Google+) may be more linked to the way the brain works than those #nofilter pictures shared.

You might not realize it, but Instagram and all of its features are designed to keep you in the app as long as possible. Whether you’re scrolling through Reels, shopping for your pet, or liking your friend’s wedding pics, your brain gets a jolt of satisfaction from every interaction you have on Instagram.

That tiny hit of pleasure could have you checking again and again, making Instagram a habit and sometimes even an addiction.

The human insatiable appetite for information, entertainment, and education in the digital world is only growing, so understanding your brain on Instagram can help you understand why you feel the need to check in every five minutes and how to use that engagement to your advantage when you’re planning your next training program.

The Instagram Generation Gap

If you wanted to assign a generation to each social network, it might look something like this: The Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are hanging out and sharing pictures of their grandchildren on Facebook. Facebook allows them to reconnect and toggle the flow of information in their news feed, so it’s not too overwhelming.

Millennials, on the other hand, are the generation that uses Instagram as their main form of social media. HootSuite’s Global State of Digital 2022 report found that 31 percent of individuals aged 25–34 use Instagram daily.

But what about Gen Z? Those Internet users between the ages of 18 and 24 are also on Instagram, despite also using newer forms of social media. Newcomer TikTok has given Instagram a run for its money, and while 63 percent of Gen Zers are on TikTok, 57 percent are using Instagram as well. In fact, Instagram has the youngest user base of all three social networks, with over 70 percent of its users under the age of 34.

Of course, the question is, “What does this all mean for neurolearning?” The more youthful tone of Instagram isn’t just because Gen Zers are self-absorbed or hashtag-obsessed: It’s because their brains respond to information differently than older individuals sharing, say, political links or brand opinions on Facebook. It’s a way of understanding your learner audience and creating eLearning that leverages user behavior for more impactful training.

Your Brain on Instagram

Where information is so readily available, your brain learns to crave the reward of new content. Whether it’s a post to a favorite forum, a funny tweet, or yes, a picture on Instagram, that reward of something new lights up neurons in the brain and releases dopamine, that feel-good neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure.

The rapid pace of a visually stimulating medium such as Instagram multiplies the effect of reward in the brain. After all, visual mediums are processed 65,000 times faster than written or audio. If, in fact, a picture is worth a thousand words, the brain processes the new information from a delivery system like Instagram, leaving it hungry for more.

It’s similar to an addiction: Your brain gets pleasure from new content, so you’re always left searching for another high. The addition of new features, like extremely digestible reels, makes that search even faster. It’s why you check into your social networking profiles multiple times each day and why Instagram is so popular with younger demographics. With brains that are hard-wired to accept information at breakneck speed, a visual medium like Instagram fulfills the need for something new.

Gray Matters

“The Online Brain,” an article published in World Psychiatry, gives us even more insight into how social media, like Instagram, can permanently alter your brain, and it’s not necessarily positive. Researchers found that the amygdala—the part of your brain that processes stimuli and processes them as emotions like pleasure or fear—is engaged, but in a unique way when compared to typical social interactions.

While the brain receives and is stimulated by the information, the neurological connections are much weaker. Instagram may be a highly stimulating medium, but it’s less likely to engage the brain on a deeper level than having an in-person conversation with a friend, reading a thought-provoking book, or learning something new.

Can Instagram be used as a tool for eLearning? Perhaps. It definitely stimulates the brain and captures users’ attention, which is the first step in well-designed training programs. Still, it may not be as effective in converting that attention into strong neural connections that have a lasting effect on learner behavior. Because of that, Instagram can be used as a way to capture interest or buzz, especially when looking to motivate a younger generation of learners.

An Instagram reel that gives an overview of a course or a story post used to remind learners of an upcoming training works in tandem with more formal training platforms. A quick, visual information post can be a great way to reinforce or remind users of content they’ve already learned. As a standalone, Instagram might not be an all-in-one learning platform, but it can definitely be used to support your eLearning efforts.

Applying Instagram’s appeal to eLearning applications should be a no-brainer. While pictures and 15-second videos might not be appropriate for longer-form training, they can become a platform for updates and reminders as well as a tool for company culture. As social networking follows modern neuroscience, it’s possible to capitalize on how the brain reacts to Instagram to create layered, dynamic content that learners love.

Ready to think differently about your next training program? Contact us, and let’s talk about how social media can be part of your learning strategy.