Category: neuroscience

“Screentime”  is not enough

Lately it seems, not a day goes by, that we don’t hear that social media is doing untold damage to our young people. We see headlines comparing the use of social media to the use of cigarettes, alcohol and even cocaine or heroin. We hear that the time kids are spending online is destroying their brains, or at least, having a detrimental effect of their development. The media seems awash with op-ed pieces on  “social media addiction“, “Facebook Addiction” or “Smartphone addiction“. More and more, we hear strident voices claiming that teenagers are incapable of caring for themselves in the online environment and that the landscape is “dark and full of terrors”. Kids are spending too much time online, we don’t know what they’re up to, and we have to put a stop to it.

Among young people, the use of smartphones, social media and social networking sites is ubiquitous. Along with the smartphone, computer mediated communication has, in a short time, become the norm for a generation. In Ireland, smartphone ownership of those aged between 16 and 29 has all but reached saturation point; 96% of those in that age group use mobile phones or smartphones to access the internet. Of those young smartphone users, 91% are likely to use their devices for social networking. Further, studies show that young smartphone owners check their devices between  50 and 85 times per day. So, given this widespread adoption of both hardware and social software packages,  it is important that we investigate if this technology is having an effect on its users, what the outcomes are, and whether these outcomes are having positive or negative consequences for wellbeing.

Firstly, though, let’s get some social media myths out of the way. There is an opinion out there, that social media or technology is having an overall detrimental effect on wellbeing, that it causes depression and/or increases loneliness, among other things. While there may be anecdotal evidence that this is true, or perhaps public sentiment  that this is the case, these anecdotes are not underpinned by scientific evidence. Social media use, both frequency and intensity, has been implicated in a host of negative social, emotional and behavioural outcomes for users: decreased motivation and poor academic performance,  greater psychosocial maladjustment, poor subjective wellbeing and depression,  negative body image comparisons,  and cyberbullying. That said, the vast majority of studies that find links between social media use and psychological effects are correlational, making it difficult to draw causal inferences.

We also hear that people are “addicted ” to social media, smartphones or particular platforms. This is also not the case; there are no such disorders. While some may use social media problematically, and for some, social media use may impinge on their lives, there are no clinically recognised addictions to these platforms or these devices; the term “addiction” is being used in the colloquial sense. In fact, it has been argued that using this type of language does a disservice to those who are suffering from addictions. The other myth that needs busting is that these addictions are driven by “Dopamine”; that every time we use social media we get a neurochemical reward, that we like and crave this reward, and that we keep going back for more. Dopamine is sloshing around us all the time. Anything pleasurable can lead to increased dopamine availability in the brain but only very few (such as drugs of abuse) lead to chemical dependence.

Amy Orben (Follow her @OrbenAmy), a social media researcher from Oxford University, likens the use of social media to eating, when we talk of outcomes of social media use. When we think of it this way, we can see how difficult it is to say that one thing leads to another. It would be like saying “Eating causes depression”. We see, immediately, how unreasonable this sounds. We need more information – What and how much was eaten? When did our particpants eat it? Who were they with? How were they feeling before they ate? Did they eat because they were depressed? What were the ingredients? Does the person have allergies? Why did they eat what they ate? The list of really pertinent questions goes on. So it is with social media research. There are so many variables that must be accounted for, that it is nearly impossible to apportion blame solely to the use of social media or a simple metric like “screentime”. Indeed, social media allows us to do so many things with so many others, that disentangling what exactly is responsible for what, is extremely difficult.

That is not to say that social media is blameless – it is to say, though, that we need more research. Not only this, but we need more nuanced research; research that shows the effects of social media unambiguously. Firstly, we need to situate research in the world of the user, knowing that they use a dynamic, evolving media, in a socially connected environment. We need to examine the assumptions we make when we describe young people as “digital natives”. Is mere membership of a social networking community enough to draw conclusions about the psychological state of the user? We need integrated, contextual, user-defined examinations, combined with research and theory, to provide us with accurate information. With this kind of research we can compare the effects of social media with the effects of other events happening in the lives of our young people; diet, parenting, education, sleep, etc. This kind of research helps us to inform, to educate and to help. It is not adequate to correlate “screentime” with complex psychological constructs using online, self-report surveys; this type of research is misleading. Taking into account the perspective and social interactivity of young people, the shifting, dynamic landscape of social media and that fact that users experience both positive and negative consequences, will ensure that correct, appropriate and relevant information enters the public domain.

We social media researchers, need to explain to the public that the relationship young people have with technology is complex; it’s not as simple as “screentime”. Young social media users reason, choose and decide how to spend their time and these decisions are based on their goals, interests and temperament. These decisions are not made in a vacuum either; context, family situation, and social relationships all play a key role in time spent on line, whether this time is active or passive, skilled or not. When we consider metrics, not only do age and gender need to be considered, but we also have to think of social class, the device itself and its connectivity, the affordances and constraints of life, who is being connected to and when, where these connections are being made and why and, importantly, what type of activity is occurring. Communicating this complexity is not going to be easy, but it has to be done. Simplistic answers lead to simplistic, ineffective solutions.


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.