A new study review published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences on Wednesday reveals how useful social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, have been for neuroscientists trying to better understand human emotions and behavior.

In modern society, a constant stream of updates, tweets, and photos can tap into users' emotions and behavior. Already, separate research has suggested social media has changed the way our brain works. Not only does it register Internet addiction the same way it does drug addiction, but it also rerouted the brain's ability to multitask, as well as increased the amount of time people spent talking about themselves.

"Neuroscience research with social media is still in its infancy, and there is great potential for future scientific discovery," says study author Dar Meshi, of Freie Universität in Berlin, in a press release. "The sheer number of people using social media is enormous, and continues to increase, with some people spending several hours on social media each day."

Meshi and his team realized that "since 1997, the year the term 'social media' was coined, over 10,000 published journal articles have used the term." Yet, across all fields, no one study or group of researchers has really harnessed social media for insights into human social cognitive processes. Neuroscience especially "seems to be behind the times," having only published seven social media-related topics. In which case, the present review proposes a framework for digging into this untapped resource.

First, it's important to understand why people are on social media, from sites like Facebook and Twitter, to Instagram and YouTube. Researchers have come up with two primary reasons: to connect with others, and to manage the impression they make on others. A person's reputation. The platform social media provides is one that can be effectively used to "satisfy fundamental social drives."

Specifically, researchers wrote, social media allows people to connect with others and "groom" their reputation through five key behaviors: broadcasting information, receiving feedback on this information, observing the broadcasts of others, providing feedback on the broadcasts, and engaging in social comparison, such as the number of likes received. These five behaviors "rely primarily on three domains: social cognition, self-referential cognition, and social reward processing," they explained. And the neural systems "supporting these social cognitive processes have been studied extensively in the offline world."

For example, prior neuroimaging studies of offline social behaviors have shown that thinking about someone else's feelings and intentions recruit a network of brain regions, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and anterior temporal lobes.

Beyond thought, social media activates the brain's reward network. Getting feedback from shared information may indicate others understand you, agree with you, like you, or think highly of you. And providing these rewards for others can "be akin to other types of pro-social behavior."

It's the way online behaviors mimic offline behaviors that offers neuroscientists real opportunity. Social media users establish a network of friends and acquaintances not much different than they do in the real word, and capitalizing on these similarities can serve as a proxy for real-world behavior. Social media may also "bypass self-report, which is notably susceptible to errors in recall or self-presentation biases," researchers said.

They continued: "These data are not completely immune to biases; however, they still reflect actions people have actually taken in the world and, thus, provide meaningful insight into people's real, rather than hypothetical, social behaviors. As such, these data provide researchers with a tool to assess the real-world implications for any targeted social cognitive process under investigation."

Of course, social media won't be a foolproof method. Researchers recommended taking note of potential privacy and ethical concerns regarding shared data. 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. To make sure this isn't the case, researchers recommended adhering to the privacy and ethical guidelines developed for offline psychological research with human subjects when proceeding with social media data collection.

Still, it's an exciting time for neuroscience. Social media has demonstrated its potential to propel current scientific methods, and render a deeper understanding of people's emotions and behavior. "Neuroscience research has only just begun to employ social media for garnering insights about humanity's social prowess and the neural systems that support it," researchers concluded. "These abundant new social media data allow researchers to ask new questions about human sociality, and to get new answers to old questions."

Source: Meshi D, Tamir DI, Heekeren HR. et al. The Emerging Neuroscience of Social Media. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2015.