Written by Carolyn Amir
How has the internet changed your life? How has social media? For many, social media represents a way to stay in touch with old friends, organize social events, and stay up-to-date on the latest news stories. While giving us a way to stay connected, has social media also changed our brains? Social media not only activates, but can also alter brain regions known to relate to reward, attention, social cognition, and memory processing.
Humans crave social acceptance, and often seek that acceptance online in the age of the Internet. When we view a picture with many “likes”, brain areas related to reward, social cognition, and visual processing become activated. This response is more robust in the brain’s reward circuitry when the likes are on the viewer’s own content (Sherman 2016). Receiving likes serves as a social reward for the poster and shares reward-processing brain regions with viewing pictures with many likes.
Giving feedback online activates the same pathways as receiving positive feedback online. Not only do we have greater responses in the reward regions of our brains when viewing another person’s post with many likes compared to few likes, but there is also a higher chance of us “liking” it ourselves. Administering “likes” elicits greater activation of social and reward pathways; while the appeal of the post itself is part of the story in this study, it does not fully explain these changes. According to a 2018 study from Sherman et al., activation can, in part, be attributed to referential cognition; that is, thinking about how others will feel upon receiving your like, and your relative social position to the poster. It is adaptive for positive social feedback to be rewarding, as it promotes social cohesion, maintenance of relationships, and social cooperation.
It is adaptive for positive social feedback to be rewarding, as it promotes social cohesion, maintenance of relationships, and social cooperation.
There is some evidence that deciding whether to “like” a post relates to implicit, rather than explicit social processing. In the same 2018 study from Sherman et al., brain regions related to implicit and emotional processing, autonomic responses, and interoceptive awareness were activated when deciding whether to “like” a post. Furthermore, participants reported using their “gut feeling” in making these decisions.
Despite supplying rewarding experiences, social media engagement can also be punishing, with adolescents and young adults being particularly sensitive to rejection. Cyberbullying, even if only simulated in a lab setting, leads not only to negative feelings, but also to increased activity in regions signaling increased arousal and negative affect. Further, studies in adolescents showed the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, a region also implicated in depression, was activated during social rejection online (Masten 2009; Crone 2018).
Peers socialize one another to norms, including modeling and reinforcing appropriate behavior (Brown 2008). In the context of this socialization framework, social media posts may serve as modeling behavior, whereas “liking” posts may serve as reinforcing behavior. This is, in part, supported by studies wherein participants are asked to rate products, both before and after seeing others’ ratings of the products. Users will adjust their ratings to the norm upon seeing others’ preferences. Similarly, social media users adjust to online norms. Activation in brain regions relating to norm violation detection was intriguingly correlated with both adjustment to feedback from peers and mismatched ratings (Crone 2018). This peer feedback can also be problematic: girls are especially sensitive to pressure around body image, and the same norms violation responses occur in response to norm-deviating body images (van der Meulen 2017).
While social media use can be rewarding, there are also grave pitfalls associated with excessive social media use (ESMU), the consequences of which are more harmful to women, adolescents, and young adults.
While social media use can be rewarding, there are also grave pitfalls associated with excessive social media use (ESMU), the consequences of which are more harmful to women, adolescents, and young adults. ESMU, sometimes referred to as social media addiction, can be associated with structural brain deficits, including changes in white matter (He 2018) and grey matter abnormalities in regions generally relating to addiction (Turel 2018). Functionally, neural patterns in those with ESMU resemble those observed in substance and gambling addictions (Turel 2014). Behaviorally, excessive internet use is associated with a wide array of deficits in attention, reward processing, social functioning, and memory processing. Easy access to multiple streams of information and an online social world that offers an alternative to the “real world” has introduced the possibility for social media to impact our cognitive processes in “unforeseen ways” (Firth 2019).
Social media relies on the brain’s propensity to endorse prior beliefs to keep us engaged online. The seminal Colleani 2014 paper mapping Twitter users’ political orientation through social media using big data famously showed how information moves through our social networks, and the broad preference for in-group informational distribution. We are more likely to be shown content that we already are biased to “like”.
So, not only do our peers shape our behavior through indirect online interaction, but so does a given platform’s algorithm by exposing us to content (and brands) that our brain is already primed to favor. As long as we are plugged in, our brains will remain susceptible to not only what we are viewing, but also to how we are viewed online.
As long as we are plugged in, our brains will remain susceptible to not only what we are viewing, but also to how we are viewed online.
Written by Carolyn Amir
Illustrated by Sumana Shrestha
Edited by Zoe Guttman, Caitlin Goodpaster, and Lauren Wagner
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