Are We Addicted to Facebook, or Are We Just Addicted to Ourselves?

Why is Facebook like crack cocaine? Here’s a little quiz: Do you find yourself on Facebook longer or more often than planned? Have you given up or reduced your involvement in social, occupational or recreational activities due to Facebook? Have you made a conscious but unsuccessful effort to reduce your Facebook “use”? For those of us for whom some or all of the above apply, we might wonder how it came to be that we started meeting psychiatric diagnostic criteria for addiction, not for heroin or alcohol, but for a social media site. It can’t possibly be the “like” function that makes us irritable and anxious when we can’t check our feed. So to what, exactly, are we addicted? A few recent neuroscience studies may give us a clue: It may be ourselves. What do I mean by this? Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell at Harvard performed a simple study: They put people in their fMRI scanner and gave them a choice to (1) report their own opinions and attitudes, (2) judge the attitudes of another person, or (3) answer a trivia question, while they measured the participants’ brain activity. The catch was that each choice was associated with a monetary payoff, which allowed the scientists to test if individuals were basically willing to give up money to self-disclose. And they were. On average, participants lost an average of 17 percent of potential earnings to think and talk about themselves! Why would anyone give up good money to do this? Not dissimilar to individuals who forgo job and family responsibilities due to various drug problems, during self-disclosure, these participants activated their Nucleus Accumbens — the very brain region that lights up when someone takes cocaine or other drugs and is important in the development of addictions. A second study took this one step farther. Dar Meshi and colleagues at the Freie Institute in Berlin measured volunteers’ brain activity while they received varying amounts of positive feedback about themselves (or a stranger as a control condition). Similar to the Harvard study, they also found that individuals’ Nucleus Accumbens became more active when receiving self- relevant feedback. But wait, there’s more. The researchers also had the participants fill out a questionnaire that determined a “Facebook intensity” score, which included the number of Facebook friends one has, the amount of time per day that one spends on Facebook (max score here was >3 hours/day), etc. When they correlated Nucleus Accumbens activity with Facebook intensity, they found that the amount that this brain region lit up predicted the intensity of Facebook use. In other words, the more active the Nucleus Accumbens, the more likely someone was to spend more time on Facebook! These results may explain why Facebook is so popular. It likely isn’t Facebook itself (no offense, Mark Zuckerberg), it is all of the self-promoting features that it offers: posting what you are thinking, posting pictures of yourself, giving your opinion on what others post via “likes,” etc. And throw in a little intermittent reinforcement (e.g., not knowing when the next time someone will like or comment on your post — indeed the same reinforcement schedule that casinos use), and Facebook has a winning formula (brilliant move Zuckerberg!). Or at least one that gets us hooked. For more by Dr. Judson Brewer, click here. References: 1. Tamir, D.I. and J.P. Mitchell, Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012. 2. Meshi, D., C. Morawetz, and H.R. Heekeren, Nucleus accumbens response to gains in reputation for the self relative to gains for others predicts social media use. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2013. 7. For more by Dr. Judson Brewer, click here.

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