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Facebook Addiction: Brain Scans Compared to Drug Addicts

As of 2013, there were over 500 million people using Facebook and roughly half of all users log-in to the social media platform on a daily basis. It is clearly the most popular social media platform compared to others like Twitter and LinkedIn. The average person on Facebook has over 100 friends and spends over 11 hours a month on this network.

With the number of people using the internet expected to grow, it’s relatively obvious that the most popular social media network that is Facebook will continue to blossom. Although not everyone uses Facebook, it seems relatively difficult to find someone that doesn’t. Some use the platform to keep in touch with old friends and make new friends.

Regardless of whether you’re a narcissist trying to amass thousands of “Likes” or you simply enjoy using the platform to communicate with friends, the truth is that Facebook can be addictive. Recently researchers decided to take an in-depth look at the brains of individuals who were compulsive Facebook users to better understand this addiction.

Facebook Addiction In the Brain

The study was conducted by research psychologists at California State University, Fullerton. The results of the study were published in the December 2014 edition of the journal “Psychological Reports: Disability and Trauma.”

Study: The new study distinguished brain activity of individuals who have “compulsive” urges to use Facebook from those who didn’t have these urges.

Set-up: To adequately determine how Facebook affects the brain, 20 undergraduate participants were given questionnaires. These included questions about whether they were addicted to Facebook, experienced any anxiety, withdrawal, or emotional changes as a result of the site. The team of researchers then conducted fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans of the undergraduates’ brains. These scans were done while they were shown various computer images such as: traffic signs, the Facebook logo, etc. When an image was shown, the participants were instructed to “press” or “not press” a button to track their reactions to the image.

Results: The results indicated that individuals who had the higher scores on the Facebook addiction questionnaire “pressed” the button with greater speed than the other displays. Furthermore, the participants were more likely to mistakenly “press” the button when they saw an image associated with Facebook as opposed to a neutral traffic sign.

  • Brain activation: Those that were addicted to Facebook had increased activity two specific regions of the brain: the amygdala and the striatum. These regions are both capable of contributing to impulsive behaviors. The study discovered that the primary difference between a “Facebook addict” and a “drug addict” is that the Facebook addict still retains adequate activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, whereas a drug addict does not.

Conclusion: The results from the study found that individuals who compulsively use Facebook, exhibit similar brain patterns to people suffering from drug addiction. However, they differ in that they still retain sufficient activity in the prefrontal cortex, whereas a drug addict typically does not.

The study’s co-author (Ofir Turel) suggested that people responded significantly more to the Facebook associations than they did to traffic signs. He elaborated by suggesting that if you’re driving near someone who is a compulsive Facebooker, they will likely be quicker to respond to their Facebook than actual street signs.

Comparison: Drug addict vs. Facebook addict

It should be noted that there were some obvious differences between the Facebook-addicted brain and the drug addict brain.

  • Drug addicts: Individuals that are addicted to drugs aren’t typically able to generate sufficient brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. This leads to a lack of control over their impulses and they cannot resist their urge to use drugs.
  • Facebook addicts: Those that compulsively check Facebook tend to have increased activity within their impulse systems in the brain. The difference between a compulsive Facebooker and a drug addict is that the Facebooker tends to have proper brain activity in the regions that are capable of inhibiting impulses (e.g. the prefrontal cortex). Facebook addicts can stop their behavior, they simply aren’t motivated to do so because they don’t see any bad consequences.

How is Facebook addiction different than drug addiction?

Some speculate that Facebook addiction may be totally different than addiction to a drug.

  • Brain activity: People addicted to Facebook still retain activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This allows them more control over their behavior and should they be motivated to stop using Facebook, they would likely have an easier time than a drug addict.
  • Less functional impairment: Those that use Facebook excessively may not be viewed by society as being impaired. Additionally they may have a tough time admitting that Facebook has impaired their ability to get work done around the house, take care of themselves, or perform well in other areas of life. The functional impairment is less noticeable than someone who spends money on drugs, can’t think clearly, and can’t perform well at work.
  • Not a chemical: Facebook is not a chemical that you ingest to achieve a pleasurable response, it is a digital website. Despite the fact that it can be pleasurable to log-on to Facebook, it’s not the same as actually using a drug.

What causes Facebook addiction?

There are a variety of factors that may cause someone to become addicted to using Facebook. A lead author of the study Ofir Turel suggested that Facebook addicts have the ability to control their behavior, but they aren’t motivated to do so because they fail to see any bad consequences. People become so sensitized to various features of the site that they feel rewarded each time they log-on to the platform.

  • Addictive personality: Those with an addictive personality (as influenced by genetic and biological factors) may be more likely to compulsively use Facebook. People who are naturally prone to various forms of addiction will have a difficult time discontinuing usage of a social application that makes them feel “rewarded” each time they use it.
  • Competition: For some users there is an element of competition to constantly “out-do” other people. This could involve posting pictures of a new spiffy outfit, dining at a top-notch restaurant, or going on vacation. People want to essentially “strut their stuff” and show people how fun their life is on Facebook. This generally leads to an innate competition response from others who want to look as good by comparison, and so nearly everyone is trying to look as “cool” as the next person.
  • Convenience: Some individuals start using Facebook because it is a convenient way to catch up with old friends. The problem lies in the fact that what starts out as “convenience” ends up becoming a habit. Once the habit is established, it is strengthened which ultimately changes the brain.
  • Dopamine: Each time you log-on to Facebook, your brain likely releases some sort of dopamine. Each time you get a new message, notification, or something good happens on Facebook, you come to associate the platform with a release of dopamine. Dopamine release results in pleasure, which is why some people become “hooked.”
  • Drugs: Using various drugs can alter neurotransmission in the brain, making you more likely to engage in compulsive behavior. As was noted in the brain scans, Facebook users maintained activity in the prefrontal cortex, whereas drug users didn’t. If someone is addicted to drugs, they may not only become addicted to that drug, but since the same prefrontal cortex remains underactive, it may facilitate addictions to other rewarding stimuli like Facebook.
  • Fear: Many people use Facebook or become addicted because if they don’t, they feel like they are missing out. The fear of potentially missing out on an event or the status of a close-friend drives people to continue using it. Everyone wants to fit in and stay-up-to-date with the latest social happenings, and Facebook makes it convenient.
  • Lack of “in-person” communication: Those who infrequently engage in Facebook communication may spend less time communicating in person. Some people may actually come to prefer communicating over Facebook as opposed to meeting in person.
  • Rewards: When people log into Facebook, they generally experience some positive or pleasurable rewards that keep them coming back. This may include reading a viral article, seeing new pictures of a girl (or guy) you have a crush on, or getting “Likes” on your new picture from friends. Each time something positive happens on Facebook, your brain generates a surge of dopamine.
  • Social factors: Some individuals enjoy socializing on Facebook, while others like seeing what’s going on in their social circle. Facebook allows people to make new friends and associate a name with a face.
  • Technology addiction: Others may be addicted to technology such as their cell phones and/or computer. Those who are addicted may spend as much time as possible on these devices, leading to compulsive urges to check Facebook, games, and other social media platforms.
  • Triggers: People that are lonely, bored, depressed, or stressed may use Facebook to help them cope with their current mood. Facebook allows someone with boredom to stay entertained by scrolling through a newsfeed, viewing their friends pictures, posting a status, or chatting with someone.

Did the brain activity lead to the addiction OR did Facebook cause the brain change?

It is up for debate as to whether the addiction a person developed to Facebook is a result of their personality, biology, genetics, etc. or whether it stemmed from continuous usage of the social media website. The way someone develops a Facebook addiction may result from a combination of highly individualistic factors.

  • Brain susceptibility: Some people may already have brains that are more likely to become addicted to Facebook and other social media. If someone with other compulsive habits or an addictive personality logs onto Facebook, they may become “hooked” from the first time they use the platform.
  • Neuroplasticity: In other cases, a person may not be inherently susceptible to compulsive Facebook-checking, but they may develop an addiction over time. This could be a result of a dopmaine surge the person gets each time they check their news feed and/or status updates. The behavior of actually using Facebook repetitively likely rewires the brain via a semi-conscious self-directed neuroplasticity.
  • Combination of both: Finally it could be a combination of both susceptibility as well as neuroplasticity that determines whether someone becomes addicted to Facebook or a “compulsive” social media user.

Understand that Facebook “Likes” the Addictions

The more people that become addicted to Facebook, the more time they spend using this billion dollar social media platform. This results in increased earnings for the company as well as the stockholders. Facebook is devised to keep you on the website for as long as possible, and induce as much digital pleasure as it is capable.

Ultimately it is foolish to blame a company for your addiction to their service. At some point, compulsive users need to realize that a change needs to be made. If you are wasting countless hours of your day checking Facebook, it may be a sign that your brain has re-wired and come to expect this surge of social “dopamine” each day. The more you continue to use Facebook (or any social platform to which you’re addicted), the more this behavior is reinforced.

For most people, using Facebook isn’t really that big of a deal. However, if you are addicted to the point that you’ve become an unproductive, Facebook-addicted slug, it may be time to take a step away from the platform and seek some therapy. Facebook addiction is often so insidious, that a majority of people that are addicted, probably don’t even realize it. Fortunately the brain scans provide proof and detail the exact changes that take place.

Final thoughts about this “Facebook addiction” study

The study conducted by these researchers had a small sample size of 20 individuals. Furthermore, all of the participants were undergraduate students – a demographic that is significantly more likely to use Facebook than people of other ages. The study could’ve clearly had a larger, more diverse sample size including people of other ages.

That said, the brain scans of compulsive Facebook users showed clear differences from individuals who weren’t compulsive users. It could be hypothesized that all forms of social media addiction may display similar brain activity in the regions responsible for regulating impulsive behavior. To get a better understanding of Facebook (and other social media) addictions, why not take a diverse sample of self-proclaimed addicts.

Or conduct a survey to first determine the most compulsive users, and next assess their brain activity. Additionally the fMRI scans may want to be conducted when a person is actually using Facebook. In any regard, further research is necessary to confirm various aspects of the findings discussed above and to expand upon the idea of Facebook addiction.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Deane Alban January 30, 2015, 3:25 pm

    We humans will do whatever it takes to get our dopamine hit! There are other ways that are a lot healthier than FB like exercise, meditation, drinking green tea, crafting and collecting hobbies, listening to music, and taking on new challenges. Others are worse like overdoing caffeine, alcohol, sugar, drugs, shopping, video games, sex, power, or gambling.

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