Facebook is currently the biggest social network worldwide, with 2.9 billion active users who on average spent 58 minutes on the app daily. While on Facebook, users need to process a constant stream of images and texts from their contacts. Processing this information requires the social-semantic brain network. The social semantic brain network is in charge of recognizing social group members, retrieving semantic associations for them, and interpreting their states and motivation (Turel et. al.).
How may the universal and prolonged exposure to Facebook moderate the social-semantic network of its billions of users? Research from Turel at USC indicates that Facebook use may modify the network in two ways. The first is increasing the demand for social-semantic networks due to the increased volume and speed of virtual cue interpretations such as name-face pairing. Their second hypothesis is more nuanced. When people communicated with each other before the rise of Facebook, they often used intonations, hand gestures and facial expressions. These paralinguistic cues are absent in texts, images, and emojis sent online. Therefore, Turel et. al. hypothesized that the social-semantic network has allocated more resources to regions that are involved in mentalizing and systemizing visual cues.
Turel et. al. tackled the first part of their hypothesis through a behavioral-descriptive study. They surveyed 300 college students, all of whom are Facebook users, to rate their ability to complete tasks that require the use of the social-semantic network before and after the exposure to Facebook. The result indicated that Facebook users, on average, believe that the use of Facebook has significantly increased their social semantic demand, which aligns with the hypothesis.
Turel et. al. also measured the brian morphology of regions in the social semantic network responsible for processing visual cues. They found positive correlations of gray matter volume in posterior superior temporal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus and left posterior fusiform gyrus with self-rated Facebook Use Score. The results are reasonable because increased gray matter volume is associated with increased cognitive performance, which meets the demand of heavy Facebook users who rely on the visual circuit of the social semantic network. However, it is unclear from this study whether people with higher gray matter volume in the three clusters are more catered to Facebook use or the volume increase is experience dependent. Researchers may need to conduct longitudinal studies to investigate the causal relationship between gray matter volume and Facebook usage.
If a causal relationship between high Facebook use and increased gray matter volume in the social semantic network is established, it is possible pharmaceutical interventions that reduce gray matter volume in these regions could ameliorate unhealthy social media use patterns. Researchers could also introduce Facebook usage as a behavioral remedy to improve the social semantic network of people with diseases that affect their social skills, such as Dementia and Alzheimer. Future research in this field may drive development of promising interventions that could help us accommodate the transition between the physical? and the digital world.
Turel, O., He, Q., Brevers, D., & Bechara, A. (2017). Social networking sites use and the morphology of a social-semantic brain network. Social Neuroscience, 13(5), 628–636. https://doi.org/10.1080/17470919.2017.1382387