Chances are that one of the first things many of us will do today is check Facebook, intrigued to see if anyone has commented on our latest status updates. Now, scientists say they have discovered exactly what makes some of us addicted to social media fame – and it is all to do with brain “reward” activity.

Researchers from Germany conducted the first study looking at how social media use is linked to brain activity, by analyzing the Facebook use of 31 participants.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, focused specifically on the participants’ nucleus accumbens. This is a small structure in the brain researchers say is responsible for the pleasure we get from “reward” processing, including money, food, sex and gains in reputation.

All participants were required to complete the Facebook Intensity Scale. This was to determine:

  • How many Facebook friends each participant has
  • How many minutes they spend on Facebook each day
  • Their general thoughts on Facebook and how they feel about the site.

The participants were then required to give a video interview, which involved them briefly introducing themselves and answering eight questions about their work, hobbies, social lives and long-term goals.

They were then told whether other participants thought highly of them after watching their interviews, and they were also required to take part in a card test to win money. Functional MRI (fMRI) scans were taken of the subjects throughout all of the tasks.

The findings of the study revealed that participants who gained positive feedback about themselves showed stronger activity within the nucleus accumbens compared with when they saw another person receiving positive feedback. This corresponded with the subjects’ intensity of Facebook use.

However, when the participants received a monetary reward, activity in the nucleus accumbens did not correspond with their intensity of Facebook use.

Dar Meshi, postdoctoral researcher at the Freie Universität in Germany and lead author of the study, explains:

“As human beings, we evolved to care about our reputation. In today’s world, one way we are able to manage our reputation is by using social media websites like Facebook.”

Our study reveals that the processing of social gains in reputation in the left nucleus accumbens predicts the intensity of Facebook use across individuals. These findings expand upon our present knowledge of nucleus accumbens function as it relates to complex human behavior.”

The study authors note that other research has revealed some negative effects of social media, including how Facebook may interrupt productivity in schools and reduce grade point averages.

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Researchers have discovered that the reward center in the brain – the nucleus accumbens – is responsible for the addiction to “Facebook fame.”

They add that these most recent findings relating individual social media use to the individual response of the brain’s reward system may be relevant for both educational and clinical research in the future.

They warn, however, that their findings do not show whether positive social feedback drives people to use social media, or whether regular use changes the way the brain processes positive social feedback. They say further research is needed in this area.

Other research has looked at how social media use can affect our everyday lives. A recent study from the University of Michigan reveals that regular Facebook use may cause people to become miserable.

Research from the University of Missouri this year suggests that Facebook activity could be an indicator of our psychological health and be used as a tool to predict mental illness.