Social media on your mind: The neuroscience behind the hype

August 29, 2012

A lot is being written about the effects of social media on the brain, how it may be changing the neural circuitry, shortening attention spans and reducing deep thinking and creativity. A group of researchers at Rutgers University in Newark, however, point out that as of date there is little hard science to prove how social media may be changing the brain's neural networks. What is known is that social media is now firmly part of our society and we have the choice to control it or not.

The key point is whether one is in the driver's seat or is being pulled along by the technology, notes Dr. Mauricio Delgado, director of the Lab for Social Affective Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers-Newark.

"For some people it's a plus. It all depends on the urge and your ability to control it or shut it off," he says.

Dr. Paula Tallal, a Board of Governors' professor of  neuroscience at the Rutgers Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN) and a pioneer researcher in the science of , adds that now is a critical part of training people to function well in society. "Social media is training us for the environment we live in now," she says

She further notes that it also is a great tool for building communities where none existed before. One example is when students in a large lecture class start texting one another after class and end up forming smaller groups that can interact about the course material and other interests. "It's like the idea behind sororities, fraternities and sports; it's breaking people into small groups where they can feel connected," she says.

She further notes that it also is a great tool for building communities where none existed before. One example is when students in a large lecture class start texting one another after class and end up forming smaller groups that can interact about the course material and other interests. "It's like the idea behind sororities, fraternities and sports; it's breaking people into small groups where they can feel connected," she says.

The question people need to ask themselves, the researchers say, is whether social media is a benefit or hindrance in their lives.

"If it's starting to cause problems in your daily life, if you can't remember what was said in class because you were busy texting, then you have to consider whether it's become a compulsive behavior," says Delgado.

Dr. Joan Morrell, a professor of neuroscience at CMBN, who studies the that drives motivation, points out that in cases where social media has become a severe addiction that behavior most likely is masking a deeper issue.

"It's something people turn to but it's not the problem itself," she says. For those where it has become an addiction, it could be an escape from such underlying issues as depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders.

"If things are going on in your life that don't allow you to meet your goals or are interfering with your ability to sleep, eat well and study, you need to reach out for appropriate help," she says.

The reasons why social media can potentially become "addictive" appear to be twofold. First, it's a social reinforcer, says Delgado. The basic principle of social reinforcement is that people are more likely to perform a specific behavior if it is directly followed by something pleasurable, such as a "Like" on Facebook. Second, just as it has been shown with video games, social reinforces such as receiving positive comments may be firing up the reward circuitry in the brain.

One of the reward circuit's natural functions is to provide a pleasurable feeling in response to outcomes of behaviors that are necessary for sustaining life, such as eating, to encourage repetition of that behavior. Addictions can develop when the pursuit of rewards becomes compulsive or obsessive.

The good news with social media, says Delgado, is that it's a behavioral issue and one most people can attempt to control. "It's not a drug dependency."

His recommendation is that people should develop a strategy so they don't end up becoming that person who is having dinner with a friend but texting other people.

"Just like any behavioral issue, like I drink too much soda, I shop too much, be aware of it and control it. Turn off the alert and vibrate on your phone. Have times when you are not connected to a screen and enjoy the environment and people around you."

For students just starting college, the researches advise resisting the urge to text and check Facebook while in class. Pay attention to what is being said and turn off the phone. It may not be easy for those who have been raised looking at screens nearly every waking hour, but it is possible.

Students, says Morrell, should be mindful that they or their parents are paying for their education after the students worked hard to qualify to meet the admission standards of the university. "Not giving classes and class work their fullest attention will likely undermine their larger goals," she says.

For those who find they are unable to control the social media urge, her strong recommendation is to turn to a mental health professional who can help with regulating that behavior. "Sometimes you just need some tools and behavioral strategies to get the most out of life."

Explore further: New research about Facebook addiction

Related Stories

New research about Facebook addiction

May 7, 2012
Are you a social media enthusiast or simply a Facebook addict?Researchers from Norway have developed a new instrument to measure Facebook addiction, the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale.

Facebook use leads to depression? No, says Wisconsin study

July 9, 2012
MADISON- A study of university students is the first evidence to refute the supposed link between depression and the amount of time spent on Facebook and other social-media sites.

Vertebrates share ancient neural circuitry for complex social behaviors: study

May 31, 2012
Humans, fish and frogs share neural circuits responsible for a diversity of social behavior, from flashy mating displays to aggression and monogamy, that have existed for more than 450 million years, biologists at The University ...

Recommended for you

Talking to yourself can help you control stressful emotions

July 26, 2017
The simple act of silently talking to yourself in the third person during stressful times may help you control emotions without any additional mental effort than what you would use for first-person self-talk – the way people ...

Heart rate study tests emotional impact of Shakespeare

July 26, 2017
In a world where on-screen violence has become commonplace, Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company is turning to science to discover whether the playwright can still make our hearts race more than 400 years on.

Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences?

July 26, 2017
No one really knows what happens when we die, but many people have stories to tell about what they experienced while being close to death. People who have had a near-death-experience usually report very rich and detailed ...

Risk for bipolar disorder associated with faster aging

July 26, 2017
New King's College London research suggests that people with a family history of bipolar disorder may 'age' more rapidly than those without a history of the disease.

Visual clues we use during walking and when we use them

July 25, 2017
(Medical Xpress)—A trio of researchers with the University of Texas and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has discovered which phase of visual information processing during human walking is used most to guide the feet accurately. ...

Toddlers begin learning rules of reading, writing at very early age, study finds

July 25, 2017
Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler's first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.