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Social media offers rich research material to neuroscientists
November 18, 2015, 10:43 am

The sheer number and continuous increase in the people using Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms offer neuroscientists a treasure trove of research material with great potential for future scientific discovery.

New studies show that a social media user's emotional state can be deduced by measuring and analyzing their broadcasts. Similarly, social conformity can be sized by examining changes in a person’s broadcasts after exposure to friends’ broadcasts. The way that people scroll through social media newsfeeds and click on content can provide insights into their curiosity, and tracking their digital footprint on social media can offer clues to their personality traits. How people interact within their social network can also be used as a proxy for their offline social interactions.

Alternatively, neuroscientists can investigate brain structure and function by capitalizing on the differences between and offline social environments. For example, during face-to-face discourse, people spend approximately 30 percent of conversations sharing information about themselves; however, online, such self-disclosure skyrockets to comprise 80 percent of online posts.  Furthermore, politeness norms dictate that people should behave cordially to one another in face-to-face interactions, but the social distance provided by certain social media platforms can violate these norms.

Social media, which tends to release people from some of the environmental constraints that usually shape their behavior, provides a wellspring of opportunity for neuroscientists to understand the roots of our social behaviors and the extent to which they will be influenced by different environmental factors. Scientists can capitalize on these natural variations in online environments to ask new questions about the roots of our social brain and how it adapts in new environments.

Some limitations to using social media in research include potential privacy and ethical concerns. For example, if a consenting participant posts a picture on Facebook and a friend comments on it, researchers may be able to download the identity of the friend and the content of the comment, potentially breaching the friend's privacy.

As social media use continues to increase, it will be important to study its positive and negative effects, especially on children and adolescents, who make up a significant portion of users. This gains further relevance considering that social media use can disrupt normal functioning and contribute among other things to poor academic performance, job loss, and declines in wellbeing.

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