Social media has become a part of our lives in a short time. The term was first used in 1997. Today, billions of people interact with social media every day. The videos, shares and likes produced contain enormous amounts of data. Researchers in fields such as psychology, economics, marketing, communication and sociology make inferences using the data provided by social media. Beyond being a powerful new tool for investigating human thought and behavior, social media may be influencing and transforming these behaviors in unprecedented ways.

What is Social Media?

Social media are internet platforms that allow people to share information, ideas and opinions through text, photos or videos. The prototype of social media is the social network. In the social network, a person can create a public or semi-open profile, make lists to which other people are added to connect, and see the lists that other people create in the system. A social network profile usually contains information such as the person’s photo, age, gender, interests. Facebook is the most widely used social network. Most social networks focus on specific purposes. For example, Instagram highlights photo sharing, Twitter microblogging, LinkedIn careers.

Apart from social networking, media sharing, social news and collaborative content are other major categories of social media. YouTube and Flickr enable video and image sharing. Since it is possible for people to create profiles and comment on media sharing platforms, it can overlap with social networks. Examples of social news platforms are Reddit and Digg. Users share and discuss news here. The most well-known collaborative content is Wikipedia. Users can produce and edit content, but do not interact with each other as much as on other platforms.

Why Do We Use Social Media?

We use social media for two main purposes: to communicate with others and to manage the impact we have on other people. These aspirations existed before the invention of social media. Social media platforms use their natural urges and impulses to attract people and make them spend more time. Belonging to a social group is one of the basic needs for people, such as food and sex. From the beginning of history, community life has been necessary for survival against nature. Respect in the community is closely related to the success of social connections. Social connections are good for psychology as well as their contribution to survival, reducing feelings of loneliness and depression. Social media offers platforms to satisfy these basic needs.

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Five Basic Behaviors in Social Media

  • Publication of information (text, photo, video). Information can be personal (holiday photos) or general (top vacation destinations).
  • Users receive feedback (comments or likes) on the information they post.
  • Users see information posted by others.
  • Gives feedback on other users’ posts.
  • Users make social comparisons between themselves and others. This comparison takes into account the characteristics of profiles and shares, as well as the number of likes and followers.

Neural Systems Supporting Social Media Use

The five core behaviors we mentioned above are based on three main areas: social cognition (mentalization), self-referential cognition, and social reward processing.

mentalization web

Social media use requires thinking about other people’s mental states and motivations. For example, the user may consider the reaction of their audience before publishing the information. While giving feedback to other users’ posts, it can take into account the reaction of the person concerned to this feedback.

Neuroimaging studies of offline social behavior have shown that thinking about other people’s thoughts, feelings, and intentions relies on circuits in the brain in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, bilateral temporoparietal junction, anterior temporal lobes, inferior frontal gyri, and posterior cingulate cortex. Recent studies have shown that these regions are more active in sharing information and receiving information shared by other people. These zones can also be important during social media use.

Self-Referenced Cognition Network

People use social media to post information about themselves. This information may be their current subjective experience, their views on the recent past and events. This is why social media users engage in too much self-referential thinking. Thinking about yourself encourages these thoughts to post, and posting behavior can lead to more self-reflection. Receiving feedback can trigger self-assessment. Making social comparisons requires thinking about their own behavior and that of other users.

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Neuroimaging studies show that self-thinking relies on midline cortical areas, particularly neural networks in the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex.

Reward Network

It provides a constant stream of social rewards to social media users. Every like and friend request on Facebook is positive feedback. Even the smallest signs of social success like these can activate the brain’s reward system and lead to more Facebook use.

Social media causes an increase in activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, ventral striatum, and ventral tegmental area in the brain. Sharing information with others and receiving positive social feedback activates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Positive feedback includes receiving signals that other people understand, like, agree with, or think of us. Giving similar social rewards to other people (like Facebook likes) can be similar to other types of prosocial behavior and can activate the reward system, as seen when donating. Reading other people’s posts can increase reward activity because knowledge arouses curiosity. Curiosity is known to be associated with ventral striatum activity. The ventral striatum may also be important in social comparison behavior. This zone is activated not when considering the absolute value of a reward, but when comparing it to someone else’s reward. The brain regions we mentioned related to publishing and receiving offline information, giving and receiving feedback, and feeling of reward can also be active in social media use.

Other Networks

Social media use also requires paying attention to warnings, making decisions, acting on device usage, and many other behaviors. For this reason, the frontoparietal attention network, executive function network and motor system are also activated during social media use.

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Advantages of Social Media Studies

Social media use has similarities with offline social behavior. Real-time information from billions of different users is constantly recorded, and there is an enormous amount of data to study human behavior. Planned social experiments have several bias issues. Self-filled questionnaires are affected by participant’s self-presentation bias and memory errors. Although the data obtained from the use of social media is not free from bias, it is valuable in terms of reflecting people’s real-world behaviors. Other advantages are that it can be easily collected and that it provides a continuous data flow instead of sampling from a single or several points. However, social media is not the exact equivalent of the real world, and different platforms can trigger different behaviors because they offer different environments to their users.

Differences between Social Media and Face-to-Face Communication

Face-to-face communication in the real world requires following social rules. In other words, it is necessary to give the other person the opportunity to speak and the conversation takes place in order. Social media is generally one-sided. Users have endless opportunities for one-sided conversation. Another difference from the real world is that social media can communicate with socially different people who are far away. However, unlike in the real world, it is unclear when this person will be interacted with again. Even if the interactions are temporary, the information is permanently saved in the database. Face-to-face communication is generally not recorded. In face-to-face communication, the answer or reaction must be shown immediately, whereas in social media it is possible to wait a minute, an hour, or even a few days or longer to respond. While communication in the real world usually involves two or a few people, social media posts span hundreds or thousands of people. On the other hand, communication cues such as minor differences in facial expression, physical contact, hints in tone of speech are lost on social media.

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