Month: May 2016

The neuroscience of social media

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

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.

Could “Loneliness” be the solution to the Facebook migration problem?

In a previous post I spoke about the fact that some young users are migrating from Facebook to different types of social media. This news comes as no surprise to analysts or indeed young  social media users. The fact users are migrating in such numbers (see below) has even prompted one analyst to opine that “Facebook appears to already be moving past the maturity stage into the decline stage” (Gunelius, 2015)…steady on!!!


I have been wondering about the possible causes for this migration and have thought that maybe, privacy, permanence or parents could be the problem. But maybe it’s something else. Could it also be that the thoughts, feelings and behaviours which result from our use of Facebook are encouraging us to seek reward elsewhere?

In our research on the negative consequences of FoMO we have found that, among other negative consequences, loneliness emerges as a significant negative outcome. At its most basic, loneliness is sadness associated with being isolated, removed from intimates, being abandoned or rejected. Given these types of descriptors, it is hard to imagine that a negative consequence of one’s social media experiences is “loneliness”, considering that one is just a click away from friends and family and that, in the main, very few of them reject or abandon the user.

Perhaps another definition for “loneliness” or an investigation into the causes and correlates of loneliness would shed light on why some social media users describe their experience this way.

Loneliness or perceived isolation can be viewed either as a single entity or a multifaceted conceptualisation of the emotional reactions to the absence of others. It is a temporary state for some, but a chronic condition for others. While temporary loneliness can be buffered by social support, the chronically lonely are more likely to be high in negative affect and low in positive affect, withdrawing socially and displaying a lack of trust in others (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1999). Furthermore, chronic loneliness has been associated with depression and hostility.

Kraus et al (1993) see loneliness as a direct consequence of our cognitive appraisals (determined by one’s social network, situation and person factors) of whether interpersonal needs are being met. Studies have shown that numerous “person” factors, including pessimism and low optimism, correlate with loneliness, which in turn has been strongly correlated with low happiness (Booth, Bartlett, & Bohnsack, 1992) and low life satisfaction (Riggio, Warring, & Trockmorton, 1993). Damsteegt (1992) suggested that lonely individuals display feelings of alienation, isolation and bitterness, and that these feelings combine to form poor social networks. Additionally, Krauss et al. (1993) propose that, for interpersonal needs to be met successfully, social provisions of attachment, reassurance of worth, social integration, guidance and reliable alliances have to be satisfied.  It may be that Granovetter’ s (1982) “weak ties”, provided by Facebook, are not quite meeting these requirement or satisfying users interpersonal needs.

When our participants described “loneliness” as an outcome of their social media experiences, I would guess that they were describing a more transient and impermanent state. If this is the case, ironically, the social support provided by social media can buffer against these feelings. Indeed, Kim et al (2015) have shown that loneliness can be a cause and a consequence of social media use.

Over the last few years active Facebook use has declined (falling by 9% in 2014), with social media users migrating to platforms (Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Youtube etc) where they can actively share content with closed groups. Could young users be avoiding loneliness or looking to alleviate it elsewhere? On these newer platforms, social provisions are being met and communication occurs between attached, integrated and reliable groups. These strong, closed, intimate groups assure and reward and our interpersonal needs are being met.

If Facebook are to stem the migration, addressing loneliness could be the place to start.