Assistant professor investigates 'dark side' of social media

Hamed Qahri-Saremi
DePaul assistant professor Hamed Qahri-Saremi has recently helped publish two studies that address the "dark side" of social networking systems like Facebook and Twitter. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
Hamed Qahri-Saremi, an assistant professor of information systems, has stayed busy since joining the College of Computing and Digital Media in the winter quarter. While settling into life in Chicago with his wife Sara, Qahri-Saremi helped publish two studies that address the "dark side" of information technology, in particular social networking systems like Facebook.

Working with co-authors located from coast-to-coast, Qahri-Saremi presented one study at the Hawaii International Conference in Systems Sciences in early January, before publishing a second study in mid-February in the Journal of Management Information Systems after an extensive peer-review process. Both studies advance a field - the "dark side" of IT - that has taken off in recent years.

Problematic social media use linked to brain imbalance
Qahri-Saremi's latest study looks at problematic use of social networking systems, or SNS. In this case, he focused on Facebook and its use among 341 undergraduate college students from a large North American university.

Working with his co-author, Ofir Turel of California State University, Fullerton, the duo found that the impulsive act of checking Facebook while driving, in class, or at other times that could lead to negative consequences, is linked to a deficiency in the balance between two brain systems.

The pair applied the dual system perspective, an established theory in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, which holds that humans have two different mechanisms in their brain that influence the decision-making, explains Qahri-Saremi.

System 1 is automatic and reactive, quickly triggered, often subconsciously, in reaction to stimulus such as the sight of or notifications from Facebook. System 2 is a reflective, reasoning system that moves more slowly, regulates cognitions, including the ones generated by system 1, and controls behaviors, according to Qahri-Saremi. System 2 can help individuals control impulses and behaviors that are not in their best interest, he says.

In the study, students who were found to display higher levels of problematic use of Facebook had a stronger cognitive-emotional preoccupation (system 1) and a weaker cognitive-behavioral control (system 2), creating an imbalance. In fact, the greater the imbalance between the two systems, the more likely individuals were to engage in problematic Facebook use behaviors, found researchers.

Qahri-Saremi and Turel found that problematic use of Facebook negatively affected students' academic performance, with the higher the problematic use, the lower the GPA. In fact, more than 7 percent of students' differences in their GPAs was attributed to their degree of problematic use of Facebook. Some of the researchers' interesting results were that 76 percent of students reported using Facebook in class and 40 percent used Facebook while driving.

"Unfortunately, these problematic behaviors in using entertaining IT systems, such as social media and video games, are very common nowadays with an increasing pattern," says Qahri-Saremi. "In some cases, these behaviors have resulted in grave consequences for the users, for instance the news that came out last year regarding the problematic uses of the Pokémon GO game where players were involved in accidents or being mugged, because they were carried away by the game. Therefore, there was a need for a research model that can explain why these behaviors emerge and how they can be mitigated, which is portrayed by our model quite well."

While the dual system theory is an established and well-researched theory in cognitive psychology, Qahri-Saremi and Turel are believed to be the first researchers to use this theory to explain the etiology of problematic use of SNS.

The study, "Problematic Use of Social Networking Sites: Antecedents and Consequence from a Dual System Theory Perspective," has received significant attention by media globally and has been ranked among the top 5 percent of all research outputs scored by Altmetric. It is available online at http://bit.ly/2ll6xnz.

IT addiction solved by cognitive dissonance?
In the other study, co-authors Qahri-Saremi and Isaac Vaghefi from Binghamton University, determined that aroused cognitive dissonance can help those addicted to IT curb their addiction. Hedonic IT systems, which are IT systems for entertaining purposes such as social media and video games, have been found to be very addictive - only less addictive than smoking, says Qahri-Saremi.

Cognitive dissonance is defined as "a psychological state of tension or discomfort that arises when people are aware of inconsistencies between their beliefs and behaviors or between different beliefs they hold." An example of this would be the psychological tension of knowing that smoking is bad for you, but continuing to smoke anyway.

In this scenario, Qahri-Saremi and Vaghefi determined that if individuals with IT addiction realize that they are addicted, there is a chance that the guilt associated with having an addiction could help them overcome it.

The study's findings help "contribute to the emerging stream of research on the dark side of IT use and addiction and helps establish the groundwork for further studies in this area, in particular in finding the mechanisms that can moderate or stop users' IT addiction," says Qahri-Saremi.

The paper, "From IT addiction to discontinued use: A cognitive dissonance perspective," is available online at http://bit.ly/2ll3ADB.