Brain scans used to see if Facebook is addictive

Behind the Headlines

Thursday February 18 2016

Facebook has around one and a half billion users

Facebook may stimulate the same pathways as drugs and gambling

"Facebook has a similar effect on your brain as cocaine," the Daily Mail reports. Brain scans found that students exposed to images associated with Facebook had patterns of neural activity also seen in people with substance addictions or gambling addictions.

The question of whether heavy use of Facebook or other technology, such as constantly checking your smartphone, should be classified as a true addiction is controversial. 

In this study, researchers ran an experiment with 20 US college students, who had functional MRI (fMRIs) scans of their brains while undertaking a test designed to measure their response to signs and symbols associated with Facebook, such as the "F" logo.

fMRIs can track the flow of blood in the brain on a real-time basis, which can provide some insight into what areas of the brain are active or being stimulated.

The researchers found that those with the highest reported symptoms of Facebook "addiction" had more activation of "impulsive" brain systems, including the amygdala-striatal system, as is seen in substance addiction. However, unlike people addicted to drugs or alcohol, the brain systems linked to inhibition of impulses (the prefrontal cortex) were working normally.

The researchers say that some of the changes to brain systems seen in substance addiction were mirrored in Facebook use, but the changes that make it harder for people to control their behaviour were not. They suggest that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) could be a useful tool to tackle Facebook "addiction".

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Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Southern California, and was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Reports: Disability and Trauma.

Oddly, it seems to have been published in 2014, but only surfaced in news stories this week, possibly after going viral on social media.

The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph both focused on the comparison to cocaine. While both said Facebook was easier to quit than hard drugs, the information about normal functioning of the behaviour inhibition brain systems was less prominent and not well explained.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was an experimental study which looked at links between certain results (answers to questions about Facebook "addiction" symptoms) and brain scans during a test of reaction to symbols associated with Facebook. The study can only demonstrate correlation (links) between the results, so it cannot show whether one causes the other.

 

What did the research involve?

Researchers recruited 45 Facebook users from a US university and asked them to fill out a questionnaire which tested them for symptoms of "addiction" to Facebook, such as experiencing "withdrawal symptoms" if they did not have ready access to the site. From the results, they selected 20 people with a range of addiction scores (10 male, 10 female, aged 18 to 23) and asked them to take part in further tests.

The tests involved pressing or not pressing buttons in response to either Facebook symbols (such as the logo) or road signs, as directed. In some tests they would be asked to press buttons in response to road signs, and not to Facebook signs, while in others they had to respond to Facebook signs, but not road signs.

While doing this, the participants had their brain activity monitored by functional MRI scans. The researchers wanted to see whether people reacted more quickly to pressing buttons in response to Facebook symbols than road signs, and whether they found it harder not to press buttons in response to Facebook symbols when requested not to. They also wanted to see which areas of the brain were activated while people were doing these tests.

The researchers looked for links between questionnaire results, the speed of response and numbers of wrong reactions to Facebook symbols, and the areas of the brain activated while carrying out the different tests.

 

What were the basic results?

The tests showed that people responded faster to Facebook symbols than the road signs, pressing the button more quickly. However, comparison with addiction results didn't show a correlation between reaction time and Facebook "addiction" symptoms.

Looking at the MRI scans, the researchers found several areas of the brain, including the amygdala-striatal area that is involved in emotions and motivation (a "reward" system in the brain), were activated while people were engaged in pressing buttons in response to Facebook symbols.

People with higher levels of "addiction" symptoms showed more activity in one part of that area: the ventral striatum. However, many of these areas were also activated when the participants were asked to press the button in response to the road signs.

There was no difference in activity in areas of the brain that have a role in inhibiting behaviour (the ventral pre-frontal cortex, lateral orbitofrontal, inferior frontal gyrus and anterior cingulate cortex), whether they had high or low scores of Facebook addiction, and whether they were stopping themselves from pressing buttons in response to Facebook symbols or road signs.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers said people in their study with low to medium levels of addiction-like symptoms "have a hyperactive amygdala-striatal system, which makes this 'addiction' similar to many other addictions". However, they added: "they do not have a hypoactive prefrontal lobe inhibition system, which makes it different from many other addictions, such as to illicit substances."

They question remains of whether "the term 'addiction' is the most appropriate one for this problem," or whether high scores on addiction questionnaires simply show "a strong bad habit".

They go on to say that "problematic" use of Facebook could be overcome by restoring the balance between the brain systems. "This could be achieved by cognitive behavioural therapy," they said.

 

Conclusion

This study draws comparisons between "addiction" to social media and substance addiction, while making it clear there are important differences between the two. 

The differing consequences of spending too much time on Facebook (which might include too little time working or studying) are less extreme and immediate than the consequences of addiction to hard drugs.

The study has some obvious limitations. The results are based on just 20 young people from a US university, which means they may not be applicable to people of different ages, levels of education, or backgrounds. Importantly, none of the students taking part had high scores of addiction, so we don't know whether the brain scan results apply to people with very heavy social media use or dependency.

Also, the study does not show that Facebook use caused the increase in brain activity in the ventral striatum. It could be that people who have more activity in the brain's reward system are more likely to become heavy users of Facebook, or it could be that heavy Facebook users develop more activity in this region. Alternatively, it could just be that people recognised the Facebook images more quickly than the road signs – the researchers did not ascertain if any of the participants drove a car or cycled – and that other more commonly seen images would have produced similar results.

We'd need much larger, longitudinal studies to find out if there is a link between brain activity in the ventral striatum and Facebook. It is encouraging that the results showed no problems with the brain systems that inhibit impulses, even in those who had higher Facebook "addiction" symptoms. 

However, we can't necessarily take that to mean that these systems would not have been affected over time. We also don't know whether the brain scan results seen in the test would have been replicated in real-life situations where people were trying to resist Facebook triggers – for example, in students getting Facebook alerts on their mobile phones while trying to study.

This is an interesting experimental study, but it leaves more questions than it answers about the true nature of the brain's dependence, or otherwise, on social media. It is too small a study to produce meaningful results.

Social media can bring many benefits, but it is no substitute for direct, face-to-face relationships with other people, which has been shown to increase mental wellbeing. 

Read about how connecting with others can help you feel happier

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow NHS Choices on TwitterJoin the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Facebook has a similar effect on your brain as COCAINE - but it's much easier to quit. Daily Mail, February 17 2016

Facebook addiction 'activates same part of the brain as cocaine'. The Daily Telegraph, February 17 2016

Facebook 'affects your brain like doing cocaine', scientist says. Metro, February 17 2016

Facebook 'could affect the brain in similar way to cocaine', study finds. The Independent, February 16 2016

Links to the science

Turel O, He Q, Zue G, et al. Examination of neural systems sub-serving Facebook "addiction". Psychological Reports – Disability and Trauma. Published online December 2014

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Media last reviewed: 28/05/2015

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