Is Facebook The Social Media Drug of Choice?

Psst… wanna get high? Just go to your Facebook page. Research suggests that your brain on Facebook is not that much different from your brain on drugs.

Hooked on “likes”

There’s something about social media — particularly Facebook — that excites the brain, and whatever it is keeps us coming back for more. It could have something to do with the fact that our brains are built to minimize danger and maximize rewards, suggests the Harvard Business Review. In modern society danger is generally kept at bay, which allows us to focus on rewarding activities that take the least amount of effort.  

Rewarding activities like checking to see how many “likes” you’ve received on a recent post is enough to get you hooked. One of the first studies to connect social media use and brain imaging data studied the brains of 31 Facebook users while they viewed pictures of either themselves or others accompanied by positive captions. The study headed by Dar Meshi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Freie University in Berlin, was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Digital dopamine

Researchers found they could predict the intensity of a person’s Facebook use by looking at their brain’s response to positive social feedback. Researchers specifically looked at the brain’s “reward center,” where we subconsciously derive chemical payoffs from certain actions. The region became more active in response to praise that a user received, compared to praise they gave to others, suggested Meshi. And that led the participants to spend more time on Facebook — looking for more reward.

Your brain on Facebook

In another study, originally reported in the Telegraph and published in Psychological Reports, undergraduates were asked to fill out a questionnaire assessing how addicted they were to Facebook.

Participants were shown a series of images, some related to Facebook, and asked to press a button when they appeared. Those who hit the button quickly when they saw Facebook images scored highly in the addiction tests. Some participants even responded to Facebook stimuli faster than they did to road signs.

Facebook draws us in as a way to feel connected and then keeps us coming back for more, thanks to the “hit” of digital dopamine we get each time we are “liked.”  But unlike addictive drugs, the addictive behavior caused by Facebook stems from low motivation to control the behavior, since Facebook is so socially accepted. That’s good news, since it means that the behavior can be corrected, if you’re willing to give up Facebook.

—Katherine Marko

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