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Study: Problematic social media use linked to brain imbalance

Researchers find problematic Facebook use limits academic performance

problematic social media use
A new study published in the Journal of Management Information Systems finds that when there is an imbalance between two cognitive-behavioral systems in the human brain, there is a higher rate of problematic use of social networking sites (SNS). This image illustrates the findings of co-authors Hamed Qahri-Saremi, DePaul University, and Ofir Turel, California State University, Fullerton. (Image by Hamed Qahri-Saremi and Ofir Turel)
CHICAGO — The impulsive act of checking Facebook while driving, in a work meeting, or at other times that could lead to negative consequences has been linked to a deficiency in the balance between two systems in the brain, find researchers in a recent study published in the Journal of Management Information Systems.

Hamed Qahri-Saremi, an assistant professor of information systems at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media, co-authored the study with Ofir Turel, a professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University, Fullerton, and scholar-in-residence at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

The study, “Problematic Use of Social Networking Sites: Antecedents and Consequence from a Dual System Theory Perspective,” is available online at

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 their decision-making, explained Qahri-Saremi.

System 1 is automatic and reactive, quickly triggered, often subconsciously, in reaction to stimulus such as a sight of or notifications from social media. 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 Qahari-Saremi. The second system can help individuals control impulses and behaviors that are not in their best interest, he said.

Using a validated problematic use measurement questionnaire, researchers obtained responses from 341 undergraduate college students from a large North American university who use Facebook.

The researchers collected and analyzed problematic Facebook use data during one semester and then followed up with each student the next year to track their academic performance — in this case using grade point average — for both semesters and cumulatively.

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

Among their findings:

  • 76 percent of respondents reported using Facebook in class.
  • 40 percent reported using Facebook while driving.
  • 63 percent reported using Facebook while talking face-to-face with others.
  • 65 percent reported using Facebook at work instead of working.

"The clear and strong effect of problematic social media use on an academic performance was astounding,” said Turel. “A slight increase in problematic social media use translates into significant grade loss, and this declined performance is persistent — it remained one year after our initial study,” he added.

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 social media.

The authors defined a problematic behavior as “a typically impulsive, often short-lived behavior that is considered inappropriate, prohibited, or even dangerous in a given environment and context, or for a given state and goal of the individual.” These problematic behaviors can result in negative consequences like, in the case of this study, an adverse effect in students’ academic performance.

“The most exciting thing about this study for me is that our dual-system research model could very well explain why such problematic behaviors are formed and how they can be controlled,” said Qahri-Saremi.

“Unfortunately, these problematic behaviors in using entertaining IT systems, such as social media and video games, are very common nowadays with an increasing pattern. 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 Pokemon 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 work quite well,” said Qahri-Saremi.

The study suggested that individuals could begin to limit their problematic social media use by, for example, turning off social media notifications on their phone. They also suggested IT designers take into considerations adding features to systems that better enable the users to control their problematic behavior.

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 social networking sites.

Next steps in the field include additional research into problematic use of social networking sites and the consequences by expanding the study into other contexts, such as video games, texting and other social media, the study says. Future research might also want to investigate if the same information is found in different cultural settings and educational institutions, the authors wrote. Brain imaging neuroscience studies could further supplement these results and point to the neural underpinnings of the above-mentioned brain systems, in the context of problematic social media use, they added.


Hamed Qahri-Saremi

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Russell Dorn