Social Media Usage and Neural Mechanisms

Evidence deriving from the neuroscientific field reveals a link between online social behaviors and regulation of neural mechanisms. A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study conducted by Meshi and colleagues reports that social media engagement is linked to activity in the ventral striatum (vSTR) and adjoining structures of the nucleus accumbens (115). More precisely, the authors found an association between levels of activation of these areas and in response to social feedback identified that were relevant to participants’ social reputation (a surrogate for “likes” on Facebook). Another study describes greater recruitment of the vSTR in relation to more popular shared pictures compared to less socially endorsed ones (116). As for structural evidence on gray matter volume and social media habits, the striatal region was found to be linked to daily smartphone checking (117) and heavy social media usage
(118). Recent evidence also suggests the involvement of the right lateral orbitofrontal cortex, linking a decreased volume in that area with an excessive usage of social media sites (119). With regard to impulse control, reduced gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex was found in people with high tendencies in developing an addictive attitude toward instant messaging services (120) and “multitasking” users, suggesting that social media usage is highly involved in the control of inhibitory mechanisms (121). Another relevant study by Moisala and colleagues on media multitasking showed increased activity in the right side of the prefrontal cortex while participants were subjected to a cognitive task; this result was explained by the authors as a reflection of mental struggle in recruiting resources in executive control (122). With regard to social cognition in adolescence, fMRI studies found that online rejection by peers or other users elicits an increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is strongly associated with offline rejection (20), and elicits neural responses in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, and the anterior insula, which are areas generally linked to “social pain” (20, 123) and depression (124). The immediate and long-term effects of frequent and prolonged social media usage on neural structures and activity have yet to be elucidated.

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