Pedestrians are urged to get off their smartphones in this street sign, emblematic of our tech-obsessed culture.

A sign warning Facebook users to pay attention while walking through a crowded downtown area. While useful communication media, uncontrolled use can manifest as addiction-like symptoms.

You could be. Automatic and uncontrolled use of technologies such as social media in a manner resembling the addictive use of substances is increasingly recognized as a problem for millions of Americans, including many young adults. Mihaylo ISDS Professor Ofir Turel discusses the roots of such behaviors from a neuroscience perspective.

Social networks such as Facebook have assisted individuals and enterprises in building and enriching relationships locally and globally. Yet these tools have also been associated with behavior similar to that observed with drug addicts for some users. Research studies from the United States and other developed countries suggest that between 0.7% and 11% of the population demonstrate technology addiction with higher figures likely among adolescents and young adults. Many more individuals present less severe addiction-like symptoms.

What are the neurological roots of these technology addictions? Are they similar to the issues observed in traditional addictions, such as substance abuse and gambling?

Mihaylo ISDS Professor Ofir Turel and a team from the University of Southern California (USC) led by Antoine Bechara are among the first to examine Facebook addiction from a neurological perspective in a coauthored study of the neural activities of 20 users ages 18 to 23. Two key brain systems typically involved in addictions – the impulsive amygdala-striatal system and the inhibitory prefrontal cortex brain system – were examined.

Mihaylo College ISDS Professor writes on a whiteboard in an information systems course.

Mihaylo ISDS Professor Ofir Turel has authored numerous research reports on the development and impact of modern technologies.

“The impulsive system can be thought of as a car’s accelerator, while the inhibitory system can be likened to a brake,” Turel says. “In addictions, there is very strong acceleration associated with the impulsive system often coupled with a malfunctioning inhibitory system.” In other words, in addictions, the gas gets very sensitive and the brake system fails to engage.

Turel’s study involved two tests that participants performed in an fMRI scanner. In the first, a Facebook no-go test, participants were asked to press a button when they saw a traffic sign image and refrain from responding when they saw a Facebook-related image on a screen. The second, a go test, requested them to press the button when they saw a Facebook image, but refrain when seeing a traffic image. Both tests were designed to reveal the sensitivity of the “accelerator” and the ability of the “brake” system to engage when needed.

“The participants responded to Facebook stimuli faster than they did to road signs,” Turel says. “This is scary when you think about it, since it means that users might respond to a Facebook message on their mobile device before reacting to traffic conditions if they are using technology while on the road.”

While the study revealed that users’ impulsive system was hyper-sensitive, no major problems with the inhibitory system were observed. “This is good news, since it means that the behavior can be corrected with treatment,” he says. “We speculate that addictive behavior in this case stems from low motivation to control the behavior, which is due partly to the relatively benign societal and personal consequences of technology overuse, compared to, say, substance abuse.” This means that benign cases of technology addictions are most likely correctable over time through changing habits, including removing cues associated with the use of the technology from one’s environment, such as silencing the phone while driving.

The study, Examination of Neural Systems Sub-Serving Facebook ‘Addiction’,” appeared in the journal Psychology Reports: Disability & Trauma.

For more on Mihaylo’s ISDS programs, visit them online or at SGMH 4113.

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