This Is Your Brain on Facebook

By Paul Gaita 01/30/15

Researchers found that excessive use of Facebook exhibited the same brain activity as those addicted to drugs or sex.

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While it should come as no surprise that people can exhibit addictive tendencies towards Facebook, a new study shows exactly what sort of impact compulsive use of the social network has on neural pathways in the brain.

Researchers at California State University, Fullerton asked 20 undergraduate students to detail their Facebook use to determine if they exhibited addiction-type symptoms like withdrawal or anxiety. The students’ brains were then observed with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they observed a series of computer images featuring Facebook logos or neutral traffic signs.

When asked to either press or not press a button in response to each image, the researchers discovered that those students who exhibited the highest level of addictive behavior in regard to Facebook were more likely to press the button when viewing an image related to the site.

More significantly, these subjects were also more likely to mistakenly press a button when they saw a Facebook image than they would if they saw a traffic sign, which study authors viewed as proof that Facebook cues were greater triggers for neural response than more concrete images like a stop sign. As study co-author and psychologist Offine Turel noted, individuals with that sort of impulsive connection to Facebook would “respond faster to beeps from their cellphone than to street signs.”

Numerous studies have already connected frequent Facebook use with addictive behavior and attributed a host of negative emotional and psychological responses to overuse, from unhappiness and negative body image issues to relationship strife. However, it may be some time before excessive Facebook use is labeled as a genuine addiction.

While brain scans of individuals who spend a great deal of time on the website show increased activity in the amygdala and striatum—areas in the brain associated with impulsive behavior—the regions in the prefrontal, which is responsible for inhibition, showed no reduction in activity, as is seen in the brains of individuals addicted to cocaine, sex, or overeating.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.