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Obsessive Use of Social Media Tied to Brain Imbalance

New research suggests the impulsive act of checking social media accounts in inappropriate situations may be the product of an imbalance between two systems in the brain.

Researchers explored why some individuals develop a compulsion to access social media at times when negative consequences could result. For example, checking a popular social media site while driving, in a work meeting, while talking to other people, or in a classroom.

Dr. Hamed Qahri-Saremi, an assistant professor of information systems at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media, co-authored the study with Ofir Turel, a professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University, Fullerton, and scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. The study appears in the Journal of Management Information Systems.

The pair applied the dual system perspective, an established theory in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, which holds that humans have two different mechanisms in their brain that influence their decision-making, explained Qahri-Saremi.

System one is automatic and reactive, quickly triggered, often subconsciously, in reaction to stimulus such as a sight of or notifications from social media.

System two is a reflective, reasoning system that moves more slowly, regulates cognition, including the ones generated by system one, and controls behaviors, according to Qahari-Saremi. The second system can help individuals control impulses and behaviors that are not in their best interest, he said.

Using a validated problematic use measurement questionnaire, researchers obtained responses from 341 undergraduate college students from a large North American university who use Facebook.

The researchers collected and analyzed problematic Facebook use data during one semester and then followed up with each student the next year to track their academic performance — in this case using grade point average — for both semesters and cumulatively.

Individuals who were found to display higher levels of problematic use of Facebook had a strong cognitive-emotional preoccupation (system one) and a weak cognitive-behavioral control (system two), creating an imbalance, found researchers.

In fact, the greater the imbalance between the two systems, the more likely individuals were to engage in problematic social media use behaviors.

Among their findings:

  • 76 percent of respondents reported using Facebook in class;
  • 40 percent reported using Facebook while driving;
  • 63 percent reported using Facebook while talking face-to-face with others;
  • 65 percent reported using Facebook at work instead of working.

“The clear and strong effect of problematic social media use on an academic performance was astounding,” said Turel.

“A slight increase in problematic social media use translates into significant grade loss, and this declined performance is persistent — it remained one year after our initial study,” he added.

Qahri-Saremi and Turel found that problematic use of Facebook negatively affected students’ academic performance, with the higher the problematic use, the lower the GPA.

In fact, more than seven percent of students’ differences in their GPAs was attributed to their degree of problematic use of social media.

The authors defined a problematic behavior as “a typically impulsive, often short-lived behavior that is considered inappropriate, prohibited, or even dangerous in a given environment and context, or for a given state and goal of the individual.”

These problematic behaviors can result in negative consequences like, in the case of this study, an adverse effect in students’ academic performance.

“The most exciting thing about this study for me is that our dual-system research model could very well explain why such problematic behaviors are formed and how they can be controlled,” said Qahri-Saremi.

“Unfortunately, these problematic behaviors in using entertaining IT systems, such as social media and video games, are very common nowadays with an increasing pattern.

In some cases, these behaviors have resulted in grave consequences for the users. For instance, the problematic uses of the Pokemon GO game where players were involved in accidents or being mugged, because they were carried away by the game.

Therefore, there was a need for a research model that can explain why these behaviors emerge and how they can be mitigated, which is portrayed by our work quite well,” said Qahri-Saremi.

The study suggested that individuals could begin to limit their problematic social media use by, for example, turning off social media notifications on their phone. They also suggested IT designers take into considerations adding features to systems that better enable the users to control their problematic behavior.

While the dual system theory is an established and well-researched theory in cognitive psychology, Qahri-Saremi and Turel are believed to be the first researchers to use this theory to explain the root source of problematic use of social networking sites.

The researchers plan to perform additional research into problematic use of social networking sites and the consequences incorporating channels such as video games, texting, and other social media. Moreover, investigators will seek to determine if cultural settings and educational institutions influence the balance between brain systems.

Brain imaging neuroscience studies could further supplement these results and point to the neural underpinnings of the above-mentioned brain systems, in the context of problematic social media use, they added.

Source: DePaul University

Obsessive Use of Social Media Tied to Brain Imbalance

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Obsessive Use of Social Media Tied to Brain Imbalance. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 20 Mar 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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