Globally, there are over two billion users of social media. With increasing access to the internet in emerging countries and the push by internet service provider to capture these new markets, it is likely that this figure will increase exponentially in the coming years. Already, internet use and smartphone ownership rates in these countries is rapidly increasing. With increased access to web services, in the industrialised west, social media is reaching saturation point, with over 76% of internet users across forty countries using social media (Pew Research, 2016). In Ireland, smartphone ownership among young adults has reached 98%, with 98% of these using social media through internet enabled devices.
Given how pervasive social media has become, it is unsurprising that this area has piqued the interest to researchers and academics. Within the last decade over 10,000 journal articles have been published on the subject (Meshi, Tamir, Heekeren, 2015). Interestingly, in this nascent, complex area of study, research has a narrow focus. Investigators concentrate on a phenomenon of interest, gauge the level of social media use or membership of a social networking site and draw correlations between the two. Studies of this nature, say linking social media use or membership of Facebook, to types of personality or to various emotional or behavioural responses proliferate, along with the widespread use of self-report questionnaire as the means of measurement.
Despite the fact that the “big picture” has not been examined in any great depth, fractured research of this nature makes it difficult to discern the wood from the trees. Studies reveal numerous contradictions and without a framework to guide research, results of social media studies will continue to confound.
Notwithstanding the amount of research which is being and has been conducted into social media, one area of research has received little attention; an area which could help to explain some of the cognitive processes involved in the social media experiences and indeed, the neural systems underpinning these processes. When fully embraced, this are of research will undoubtedly provide nuance to our burgeoning understanding of our social media experiences. Already, biological-social media studies have produced some intriguing findings.
It is, as yet, unclear as to why levels of participation among social media users vary. However, a possible biological basis for this variability has been uncovered using fMRI. Kanai, Bahrami, Roylance & Rees (2012) have discovered that quantitative differences in the number of friends one has on Facebook predict grey matter density in the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the entorhinal cortex. Further, voxel-based morphometry has shown that lonely individuals have less gray matter in the left posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS: Kanai, Bahrami, Duchaine, Janik, Banissy, & Rees, 2012). These regions of the brain have previously been implicated in perception and associative memory. Kanai et al also discovered a correlation between grey matter density of the amygdala and online and offline social network size. Notably, Von der Heide, Vyas & Olsen (2014) have shown, across fMRI analyses, that individual differences in social network size were consistently related to structural and functional differences in the left and right amygdala, and the right entorhinal/ventral anterior temporal cortex. These findings have led the authors to surmise that the size of participant’s online social network is closely linked to regions of the brain implicated in social cognition.
As social media is often characterised as a means by which we manage our reputations and the impressions we make on others, researchers have examined whether positive social, self-relevant feedback, concerning one’s character, is linked with the neural processing of gains in ventral striatum (Meshi, Morawetz, & Heekeren, 2013). These researchers hypothesized a relationship between the way the brain processes self-relevant gains in reputation and one’s degree of Facebook use. fMRI data was recorded while participants received gains in reputation and it was found that when participants responded to gains in reputation, reward-related activity in the left nucleus accumbens predicted Facebook use. Further analysis showed that Facebook use primarily explained nucleus accumbens activity.
Finally, and as “Facebook Addiction” seems to be an issue concerning parents and certainly the media, a study by Turel, He, Xue, Xiao & Bechara (2014) sheds new light on this very modern phenomenon. Previous studies into addictive behaviours have shown that these behaviours violate the homeostasis of impulsive (amygdala-striatal) and inhibitory (prefrontal cortex) brain systems. Turel et al examined whether these systems sub-serve Facebook “addiction”. Interestingly, the addiction-like symptoms of technology-related “addictions” share some neural features with substance and gambling addictions. Significantly, however, they also differ from such addictions in both their brain etiology and possibly pathogenesis, as related to abnormal functioning of the inhibitory-control brain system.
The studies represent the very few which examine neural correlates of social media use; this important area of research is very much in its infancy. As we learn more about the antecedents and consequence of social media use, and as we gain a more holistic picture of our social media experience, it is also important that we understand the effects that regular social media use could be having on our behavioural and neural development, and functioning. While we should be cautious interpreting the results of studies like these, the significance of this research is particularly relevant to the development of adolescents and young adults who use this technology regularly and have transitioned through developmental milestones in the company of social media. It is the explicit intention of social media developers to encourage us to spend more and more time engaged with this technology, so it is essential that we understand the differences and changes, if there are any, in the social media user’s functioning.
A word of caution
There is confusion as to what neuroscience tells us about awareness and behaviour. Neuroscience doesn’t provide a satisfactory account of the conditions that are sufficient for awareness and behaviour and a neuroscientific explanation of these phenomena and how they arise, is incomplete. The idea that neuroscience accounts for these phenomena is neuroscientism.
The studies mentioned in this essay give us a snapshot of the brains of the participants. It would be an error to extrapolate behaviour, awareness, consciousness, intelligence, emotion etc. from an fMRI image or indeed, from a researcher’s interpretation of that image. Further, it would be incorrect to assume cause and effect.
Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Roylance, R., & Rees, G. (2012) Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure. Proceeding. Biological Science. The Royal Society, 7(279), 1327-34.
Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Duchaine, B., Janik, A., Banissy, M. J., & Rees, G. (2012). Brain Structure Links Loneliness to Social Perception. Current Biology,22(20), 1975–1979.
Meshi, D., Morawetz, C., & Heekeren, H. (2013). Nucleus accumbens response to gains in reputation for the self relative to gains for others predicts social media use. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 29(7), 439.
Meshi, D., Tamir, D., & Heekeren, H. (2015). The Emerging Neuroscience of Social Media. Trends in Cognitive Science,19(12), 771-82.
Pew Research. (2016, May 18). Retrieved from http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/
Turel, O., He, Q., Xue, G., Xiao, L., & Bechara, A. (2014). Examination of neural systems sub-serving Facebook “addiction”. Psychological Reports, 115(3), 675-695.
Von der Heide, R., Vyas, G., & Olson, I. (2014). The social network-network: size is predicted by brain structure and function in the amygdala and paralimbic regions. Social Cognitive and Affective Neiroscience, 9(12), 1962-1972.