Faculty voice:

Dar Meshi: The neuroscience behind social media use

June 20, 2018

Dar Meshi is an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations.

There’s no official medical diagnosis for excessive social media use — at least not yet. However, new research suggests that compulsive use of online social networking sites may be more than just an innocuous habit.

Fueled by my curiosity about human behavior, both online and off, I study the neural processing of social information and social decision making as an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations. I’ve always been curious about why people do what they do, myself included. As I got older, social interactions and watching the people around me became more interesting.

I earned my bachelor’s and Ph.D. degrees in biology before ending up at Ogilvy & Mather in New York City where I helped advertise pharmaceuticals. Now I’m working to see if excessive social media use and substance abuse have physiological similarities in the brain.

Human Observation

One afternoon, I was scrolling through Facebook and had the same thought that we’ve all had: Why do some people use social media so much more than others?

I have a neuroscience background, and I thought to myself, “I could design a study where I can ask that question from a neuroscience perspective.”

So I did just that. I placed participants inside an MRI scanner and gave them social rewards, such as telling them they were polite or honest. Then, I looked at the parts of the brain that responded to these rewards.

I was able to show a relationship between how an individual’s brain responds to social rewards and how much they self-reported going on social media. If there was a small activation, they weren’t going on social media much, but if there was a big activation, they were.

My data suggest that individuals who use social media excessively might demonstrate the same underlying brain physiology as people who use drugs and alcohol excessively.

Patterns of Addiction

These brain regions that respond to rewards are involved in decision making, and as time went on, I began to wonder if excessive social media users would show the same impaired decision making as individuals with substance use or gambling addictive disorders.

Cue the Iowa Gambling Task, a simulation designed to represent real-life decision making. In this task, four decks of cards are presented on a computer screen, two of which are considered “bad decks.” They have larger short-term rewards than the “good decks,” but they are more likely to punish the player over the long-term. Individuals with addictions tend to play the bad decks more often, and as a result they earn less money.

I conducted a study where I had social media users complete this Iowa Gambling Task. My data revealed that those who self-reported excessive social media use choose more bad decks, demonstrating impaired decision making. This behavior is similar to individuals with substance use and behavioral addictive disorders.

Moving Forward

The College of Communication Arts and Sciences is the ideal environment to further my research. There are substantial advantages to working in the college — if I was just in a psychology or neuroscience department, I wouldn’t have access to all these fun toys and amazing collaborators.

I’m surrounded by people who have really impressive skill sets who are working with cutting edge technologies. I’m looking forward to answering some interesting and challenging questions with my colleagues.

One current priority is developing a way to collect more accurate data for my research. To avoid using self-reported measures of social media use, which can be noisy and inaccurate, I’ve hired a computer programmer to write an app that can be downloaded onto people’s cellphones to track the amount of time a social media application is open. Now, we’ll see when social media users are really going on and when they’re going off, and we’ll know how that affects their wellbeing.

Overall, my research program is aimed at better understanding how social media use, both regular and excessive, is associated with factors such as depression, mood and substance use.