1. Study suggests smartphone addiction creates imbalance in brain

    December 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Radiological Society of North America press release:

    Researchers have found an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet, according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

    According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 46 percent of Americans say they could not live without their smartphones. While this sentiment is clearly hyperbole, more and more people are becoming increasingly dependent on smartphones and other portable electronic devices for news, information, games, and even the occasional phone call.

    Along with a growing concern that young people, in particular, may be spending too much time staring into their phones instead of interacting with others, come questions as to the immediate effects on the brain and the possible long-term consequences of such habits.

    Hyung Suk Seo, M.D., professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, and colleagues used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to gain unique insight into the brains of smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers. MRS is a type of MRI that measures the brain’s chemical composition.

    The study involved 19 young people (mean age 15.5, 9 males) diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction and 19 gender- and age-matched healthy controls. Twelve of the addicted youth received nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, modified from a cognitive therapy program for gaming addiction, as part of the study.

    Researchers used standardized internet and smartphone addiction tests to measure the severity of internet addiction. Questions focused on the extent to which internet and smartphone use affects daily routines, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and feelings.

    “The higher the score, the more severe the addiction,” Dr. Seo said.

    Dr. Seo reported that the addicted teenagers had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity.

    The researchers performed MRS exams on the addicted youth prior to and following behavioral therapy and a single MRS study on the control patients to measure levels of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits or slows down brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited. Previous studies have found GABA to be involved in vision and motor control and the regulation of various brain functions, including anxiety.

    The results of the MRS revealed that, compared to the healthy controls, the ratio of GABA to Glx was significantly increased in the anterior cingulate cortex of smartphone- and internet-addicted youth prior to therapy.

    Dr. Seo said the ratios of GABA to creatine and GABA to glutamate were significantly correlated to clinical scales of internet and smartphone addictions, depression and anxiety.

    Having too much GABA can result in a number of side effects, including drowsiness and anxiety.

    More study is needed to understand the clinical implications of the findings, but Dr. Seo believes that increased GABA in the anterior cingulate gyrus in internet and smartphone addiction may be related to the functional loss of integration and regulation of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network.

    The good news is GABA to Glx ratios in the addicted youth significantly decreased or normalized after cognitive behavioral therapy.

    “The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions,” Dr. Seo said.


  2. Study looks at how office workers perceive sitting down all week

    by Ashley

    From the James Cook University press release:

    A James Cook University study has found nearly three quarters of office workers believe there is a negative relationship between sitting down all day at work and their health — and that bosses are crucial to helping solve the problem.

    PhD candidate Teneale McGuckin is a lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at JCU. She surveyed 140 office workers on what they thought was the relationship between sitting time and health.

    “One hundred people said that more sitting time worsened their health. Back complaints were the most common worry, then neck aches and loss of muscle tone. People also talked about weight gain and that sitting down all day reduced their motivation.”

    Ms McGuckin said that science supported the view that sitting is bad for you.

    “Increased sitting time has been associated with an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease and reduced life expectancy. Links to weight gain, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, and breathing difficulties, have also been identified.”

    The office workers were also asked what they thought could be done about the problem and suggested a variety of behaviour change strategies.

    These included alarms or alerts to prompt standing, or computer software which freezes the computer for a selected period of time, standing in meetings or in the lunchroom, and standing desks.

    “But whatever the strategy used, the focus groups said it needed to include education on the benefits and it needed buy-in from management. People said the breaks have to be seen as a normal activity and there shouldn’t be criticism if they are away from their desks,” said Ms McGuckin.

    She said that it was plain a ‘one size fits all’ approach would be unlikely to succeed due to personal preferences.

    “Interventions have to include a variety of strategies that are individually tailored and in which the people involved have the opportunity for input. If people feel they have control of the situation in this way, the strategy is more likely to work.”

     


  3. Study suggests preschool program helps boost skills necessary for academic achievement

    by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Children growing up in poverty face many challenges, but a preschool program that aims to improve social and emotional skills may help increase their focus and improve learning in the classroom, according to researchers.

    Researchers observed two groups of children from preschool through third grade. One group participated in the Head Start REDI (Research-based, Developmentally Informed) program and the other did not. Each year, the researchers measured the students’ executive function (EF) — skills that help children focus, control their impulses, remember details, and other skills essential in the classroom.

    Karen Bierman, Penn State Evan Pugh Professor of Psychology, said that while most children seemed to benefit from the REDI program, it was the children that started out with the lowest executive function that benefited the most.

    “We saw a bit of an improvement in EF skills after REDI ended at the end of preschool, but the bigger effects emerged over time in the children that started out with lower EF,” Bierman said. “We think that the social and emotional skills they built in the program boosted the EF in this group of kids, which in turn helped them engage in the classroom and benefit cognitively.”

    The researchers — who published their findings in the journal Psychological Science — said executive function skills are critical for all students, but they tend to be lower in children that grow up in poverty. Bierman said that if students are low in executive function and can’t regulate their behavior in the classroom and focus on their schoolwork, it’s hard for them to learn.

    “Some people describe executive functions as the neural architecture for learning,” Bierman said. “They help you organize and focus your attention, support your working memory, and promote your self-control. They help you stop and think through something. EF is governed by the prefrontal cortex, which grows very rapidly during the preschool years. So preschool is a great opportunity to work on these skills.”

    The REDI program was developed at Penn State as a way to build upon the existing Head Start program, which provides preschool education to low-income children. The REDI program aims to improve social and emotional skills, as well as early literacy and listening skills, by incorporating stories, puppets and other activities that introduce concepts like understanding feelings, cooperation, friendship skills and self-control skills.

    The researchers suggested that REDI’s focus on these skills would also help strengthen executive function. They recruited 356 children for the study, with 192 participating in the REDI program and 164 participating in a traditional Head Start curriculum.

    As the children moved from preschool through third grade, the researchers checked in each year and measured executive function and academic performance. In addition to comparing the REDI students to the control group, they also noted the differences in children that started with high, medium and low executive function within the REDI program.

    After analyzing the data from all five years and across all groups, the researchers found that the children in the low executive function group showed more growth in EF than the control group. The researchers also saw better reading fluency and language arts and math performance in the third grade in the lower executive function group compared to the control group.

    “We saw that this enriched preschool intervention can really have long-term academic benefits, especially, in this case, for kids who were at highest risk for having school difficulties because of their low executive function,” Bierman said. “The greatest benefits for the larger group of children were in the area of social and behavioral adjustment when they moved into elementary school. And for the kids with lower executive function, we also saw improved academic skills.”

    Bierman said she believes that boosting executive function in the kids that needed it most, gave them the skills to participate and focus in the classroom.

    In the future, the researchers said they want to continue following the children in the study as they move into middle and high school to continue measuring the lasting effects of the REDI program.

     


  4. Study suggests farm to school program boosts fruit, veggie intake

    by Ashley

    From the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences press release:

    It’s one thing to offer students fruits and vegetables for school lunch; it’s another for them to actually eat them. Children who attend schools with Farm to School programs eat more fruits and vegetables, new University of Florida research shows.


  5. Study suggests eye contact with your baby helps synchronize your brainwaves

    by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge press release:

    When a parent and infant interact, various aspects of their behaviour can synchronise, including their gaze, emotions and heartrate, but little is known about whether their brain activity also synchronises — and what the consequences of this might be.

    Brainwaves reflect the group-level activity of millions of neurons and are involved in information transfer between brain regions. Previous studies have shown that when two adults are talking to each other, communication is more successful if their brainwaves are in synchrony.

    Researchers at the Baby-LINC Lab at the University of Cambridge carried out a study to explore whether infants can synchronise their brainwaves to adults too — and whether eye contact might influence this. Their results are published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    The team examined the brainwave patterns of 36 infants (17 in the first experiment and 19 in the second) using electroencephalography (EEG), which measures patterns of brain electrical activity via electrodes in a skull cap worn by the participants. They compared the infants’ brain activity to that of the adult who was singing nursery rhymes to the infant.

    In the first of two experiments, the infant watched a video of an adult as she sang nursery rhymes. First, the adult — whose brainwave patterns had already been recorded — was looking directly at the infant. Then, she turned her head to avert her gaze, while still singing nursery rhymes. Finally, she turned her head away, but her eyes looked directly back at the infant.

    As anticipated, the researchers found that infants’ brainwaves were more synchronised to the adults’ when the adult’s gaze met the infant’s, as compared to when her gaze was averted. Interestingly, the greatest synchronising effect occurred when the adults’ head was turned away but her eyes still looked directly at the infant. The researchers say this may be because such a gaze appears highly deliberate, and so provides a stronger signal to the infant that the adult intends to communicate with her.

    In the second experiment, a real adult replaced the video. She only looked either directly at the infant or averted her gaze while singing nursery rhymes. This time, however, her brainwaves could be monitored live to see whether her brainwave patterns were being influenced by the infant’s as well as the other way round.

    This time, both infants and adults became more synchronised to each other’s brain activity when mutual eye contact was established. This occurred even though the adult could see the infant at all times, and infants were equally interested in looking at the adult even when she looked away. The researchers say that this shows that brainwave synchronisation isn’t just due to seeing a face or finding something interesting, but about sharing an intention to communicate.

    To measure infants’ intention to communicate, the researcher measured how many ‘vocalisations’ infants made to the experimenter. As predicted, infants made a greater effort to communicate, making more ‘vocalisations’, when the adult made direct eye contact — and individual infants who made longer vocalisations also had higher brainwave synchrony with the adult.

    Dr Victoria Leong, lead author on the study said: “When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signalling their availability and intention to communicate with each other. We found that both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync with their partner. This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronising when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.”

    Dr Sam Wass, last author on the study, said: “We don’t know what it is, yet, that causes this synchronous brain activity. We’re certainly not claiming to have discovered telepathy! In this study, we were looking at whether infants can synchronise their brains to someone else, just as adults can. And we were also trying to figure out what gives rise to the synchrony.

    “Our findings suggested eye gaze and vocalisations may both, somehow, play a role. But the brain synchrony we were observing was at such high time-scales — of three to nine oscillations per second — that we still need to figure out how exactly eye gaze and vocalisations create it.”


  6. Screen time before bed linked with less sleep, higher BMIs in kids

    by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    It may be tempting to let your kids stay up late playing games on their smartphones, but using digital devices before bed may contribute to sleep and nutrition problems in children, according to Penn State College of Medicine researchers.

    After surveying parents about their kids’ technology and sleep habits, researchers found that using technology before bed was associated with less sleep, poorer sleep quality, more fatigue in the morning and — in the children that watched TV or used their cell phones before bed — higher body mass indexes (BMI).

    Caitlyn Fuller, medical student, said the results — published in the journal Global Pediatric Health — may suggest a vicious cycle of technology use, poor sleep and rising BMIs.

    “We saw technology before bed being associated with less sleep and higher BMIs,” Fuller said. “We also saw this technology use being associated with more fatigue in the morning, which circling back, is another risk factor for higher BMIs. So we’re seeing a loop pattern forming.”

    Previous research has found associations between more technology use and less sleep, more inattention, and higher BMIs in adolescents. But even though research shows that 40 percent of children have cell phones by fifth grade, the researchers said not as much was known about the effects of technology on a younger population.

    Fuller said that because sleep is so critical to a child’s development, she was interested in learning more about the connection between screen time right before bed and how well those children slept, as well as how it affected other aspects of their health.

    The researchers asked the parents of 234 children between the ages of 8 and 17 years about their kids’ sleep and technology habits. The parents provided information about their children’s’ technology habits, sleep patterns, nutrition and activity. The researchers also asked the parents to further specify whether their children were using cell phones, computers, video games or television during their technology time.

    After analyzing the data, the researchers found several adverse effects associated with using different technologies right before bed.

    “We found an association between higher BMIs and an increase in technology use, and also that children who reported more technology use at bedtime were associated with less sleep at night,” Fuller said. “These children were also more likely to be tired in the morning, which is also a risk factor for higher BMIs.”

    Children who reported watching TV or playing video games before bed got an average of 30 minutes less sleep than those who did not, while kids who used their phone or a computer before bed averaged an hour less of sleep than those who did not.

    There was also an association between using all four types of technology before bed and increased cell phone use at night, such as waking up to text someone, with watching TV resulting in the highest odds.

    Fuller said the results support new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) about screen time for children. The AAP recommends that parents create boundaries around technology use, such as requiring their kids to put away their devices during meal times and keeping phones out of bedrooms at night.

    Dr. Marsha Novick, associate professor of pediatrics and family and community medicine, said that while more research is needed to determine whether multiple devices at bedtime results in worse sleep than just one device, the study can help pediatricians talk to parents about the use of technology.

    “Although there are many benefits to using technology, pediatricians may want to counsel parents about limiting technology for their kids, particularly at bedtime, to promote healthy childhood development and mental health,” Novick said.


  7. Talking to ourselves and voices in our heads

    by Ashley

    From the University of New South Wales press release:

    As far our brain is concerned, talking to ourselves in our heads may be fundamentally the same as speaking our thoughts out loud, new research shows. The findings may have important implications for understanding why people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia hear voices.

    UNSW Sydney scientist and study first author Associate Professor Thomas Whitford says it has long been thought that these auditory-verbal hallucinations arise from abnormalities in inner speech — our silent internal dialogue.

    “This study provides the tools for investigating this once untestable assumption,” says Associate Professor Whitford, of the UNSW School of Psychology.

    Previous research suggests that when we prepare to speak out loud, our brain creates a copy of the instructions that are sent to our lips, mouth and vocal cords. This copy is known as an efference-copy.

    It is sent to the region of the brain that processes sound to predict what sound it is about to hear. This allows the brain to discriminate between the predictable sounds that we have produced ourselves, and the less predictable sounds that are produced by other people.

    “The efference-copy dampens the brain’s response to self-generated vocalisations, giving less mental resources to these sounds, because they are so predictable,” says Associate Professor Whitford.

    “This is why we can’t tickle ourselves. When I rub the sole of my foot, my brain predicts the sensation I will feel and doesn’t respond strongly to it. But if someone else rubs my sole unexpectedly, the exact same sensation will be unpredicted. The brain’s response will be much larger and creates a ticklish feeling.”

    The study, published in the journal eLife, set out to determine whether inner speech — an internal mental process — elicits a similar efference-copy as the one associated with the production of spoken words.

    The research team developed an objective method for measuring the purely mental action of inner speech. Specifically, their study in 42 healthy participants assessed the degree to which imagined sounds interfered with the brain activity elicited by actual sounds, using electroencephalography (EEG).

    The researchers found that, just as for vocalized speech, simply imagining making a sound reduced the brain activity that occurred when people simultaneously heard that sound. People’s thoughts were enough to change the way their brain perceived sounds. In effect, when people imagined sounds, those sounds seemed quieter.

    “By providing a way to directly and precisely measure the effect of inner speech on the brain, this research opens the door to understanding how inner speech might be different in people with psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia,” says Associate Professor Whitford.

    “We all hear voices in our heads. Perhaps the problem arises when our brain is unable to tell that we are the ones producing them.

     


  8. Study suggests microblogging may help reduce negative emotions for people with social anxiety

    December 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Consumer Psychology press release:

    Have you ever wanted to tell someone about a tough day at work or scary medical news, but felt nervous about calling a friend to share what’s going on?

    Findings from a new study suggest that people who feel apprehensive about one-on-one interactions are taking advantage of a new form of communication that may help regulate emotions during times of need: online social networks. The study is available online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

    “When people feel badly, they have a need to reach out to others because this can help reduce negative emotions and restore a sense of well-being,” says Eva Buechel, a professor in the business school at the University of South Carolina. “But talking to someone face-to-face or on the phone might feel daunting because people may worry that they are bothering them. Sharing a status update on Facebook or tweet on Twitter allows people to reach out to a large audience in a more undirected manner.”

    Sharing short messages to an audience on a social network, called microblogging, allows people to reach out without imposing unwanted communication on someone who might feel obligated to respond. Responses on online social networks are more voluntary. To test whether people are more likely to microblog when they feel socially apprehensive, Buechel asked participants in one group to write about a time when they had no one to talk to at a party, while the control group wrote about office products.

    Then she asked the participants who had an online social network account to log in and spend two minutes on their preferred social network. When the time ended, she asked people if they had microblogged. The results showed that those who had been led to feel socially apprehensive were more likely to microblog.

    To explore who is more likely to microblog, Buechel conducted another experiment in which one group of participants watched a clip from the movie “Silence of the Lambs,” while the control group watched clips of pictures from space. Then they answered questions about how likely they were to express themselves in three different forms of communication: microblogging, in person or direct message (a private online message to an individual). Finally, she asked people to answer a series of questions that measured their level of social anxiety in a variety of situations.

    Buechel discovered that people who were higher on the social apprehension scale were more likely to microblog after they had experienced negative emotions (as a result of watching the “Silence of The Lambs” clip). People who were low on the social apprehension scale, however, were more interested in sharing face-to-face or via direct message after watching the scary clip.

    “There is a lot of research showing that sharing online is less ideal than having communication in person, but these social networks could be an important communication channel for certain individuals who would otherwise stay isolated,” she says.

    She acknowledges that there is a danger for those who start to rely on social media as their only form of communication, but when used wisely, microblogging can be a valuable means of buffering negative emotions though social interaction.


  9. Mouse study reveals oxytocin-fueled brain circuit that regulates social recognition

    by Ashley

    From the Harvard Medical School press release:

    How do we recognize others? How do we know friend from foe, threat from reward? How does the brain compute the multitude of cues telling us that Susan is not Erica even though they look alike? The complexity of social interactions — human as well as mammalian — has mystified brain researchers for decades.

    Now a new study conducted in mice by regenerative neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital provides critical insights into the neural circuitry and signaling cascade that underlie social recognition.

    The experiments, described Dec. 8 in Nature Communications, show that social recognition is regulated by a lattice of oxytocin-sensitive neurons in a part of the hippocampus, a seahorse shaped structure in the brain responsible for memory formation.

    The results add to a scarce but growing body of research casting the hippocampus in a new light. Commonly described as the brain’s librarian — charged with forming short-term memories, consolidating them into long-term ones and labeling and storing them for later retrieval — the hippocampus’ role in spatial navigation has been well established. However, its involvement in social behavior in general and social recognition in particular has thus far remained poorly understood.

    The latest findings indicate the hippocampus does play a role as a differentiator of social memories when enabled by the neurochemical oxytocin, known for its role in bonding, empathy and sexual pleasure. Specifically, the team’s experiments reveal that computation of social stimuli takes place in the dentate gyrus-CA3 (DG-CA3) circuit, a subunit of the hippocampus thought to play the role of a master cataloguer, responsible for filing similar memories in distinct “folders” ensuring that the correct file is retrieved when needed.

    The findings indicate that oxytocin is a critical catalyst that switches the circuit’s functional mode. In the absence of oxytocin, the circuit regulates object recognition.

    “Our results indicate that oxytocin usurps this preexisting neural circuit within the hippocampus that normally regulates the differentiation of similar memories,” said study first author Tara Raam, a graduate student in neuroscience at Harvard University. “In the presence of oxytocin, the circuit assumes an additional role as a regulator of social cognition.”

    Such “co-opting,” the researchers added, illustrates evolution’s efficiency.

    “Nature is thrifty, it’s parsimonious,” said senior investigator Amar Sahay, a Harvard Medical School associate professor at the Center for Regenerative Medicine and the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It doesn’t like to invent different components for different processes. It repurposes existing ones.”

    The Harvard Medical School team’s findings can help explain why disruptions in hippocampal activity can lead to the types of social behavior anomalies seen in a variety of neurodevelopmental, psychiatric and neurologic conditions, most notably autism-spectrum disorders.

    Basic neural computations that separate similar but different stimuli from one another are critical in even the most prosaic of daily activities. Earlier work published by Sahay’s team indicates such neural sifting underlies the ability to distinguish between benign and threatening stimuli in our surroundings. When such neural arithmetic goes awry — as it does in people with PTSD, for example — it can result in the perception of threat where there is none. For example, Sahay says, a soldier who has returned home from combat is driving down the road to a coffee shop. He sees something on the road that resembles an improvised explosive device.

    “The sight triggers an earlier memory,” Sahay said. “A healthy soldier would dismiss the object, but someone with PTSD would retrieve the full initial memory because of impaired discrimination between similar stimuli. That person will perceive the benign object as a threat. It’s an overgeneralization of fear.”

    The tip-off

    In the current study, scientists homed in on an area of the hippocampus known as the dentate gyrus, which receives input from the external environment and relays it to a cluster of neurons known as CA3, essentially a conduit for information processed in the dentate gyrus.

    Previous work by Sahay and others has suggested the DG-CA3 neural scaffold plays a role in distinguishing similar memories from each other, particularly those related to space and place: Think approaching a familiar part of town and seeing a sign or a structure that in an instant tells you’re in known territory.

    The hippocampus and its DG-CA3 scaffold — epicenters of memory formation and differentiation — sport an intricate neuronal circuitry. Neurons in these areas are studded with an abundance of receptors for oxytocin, an observation that thus far had remained somewhat baffling to scientists.

    Sahay and team wondered: Why are the brain’s chief cataloguers endowed with so many receptors for an affective neurochemical? As far as Sahay’s team was concerned it was a telltale sign that oxytocin performed a critical function, one worth exploring further.

    In a series of experiments, Sahay’s team showed that, indeed, the presence of oxytocin sparks signaling across the circuit to guide social interaction.

    In one set of experiments, the researchers used viruses to delete oxytocin receptors in the DG-CA3 circuit of the brains of mice. Despite losing their oxytocin receptors, the animals retained their ability to differentiate between old and new objects, such as cups and bowls. They could also distinguish between inanimate and animate objects — they opted, appropriately, to spend time with another mouse instead of an empty bowl. The story changed when these oxytocin-insensitive mice were put in social situations. Presented with known and unknown mice, normal mice spent more time with the unknown animals. However, animals that lacked oxytocin receptors could no longer tell their old acquaintances from the newcomers, spending as much time with the old buddies as they did with the strangers. As far as mouse social etiquette goes, animals lacking oxytocin receptors were socially inept, Sahay said.

    The finding, Sahay says, shows that although the DG-CA3 circuit regulates object recognition, when it is awash with oxytocin, it also regulates social recognition.

    A neural relay

    While the hippocampus indexes new memories, social behavior is guided by other brain regions. So, the researchers’ next question became: Once social computations are made in the DG-CA3 circuit, how are they relayed out of the hippocampus to guide behavior?

    To answer this question, researchers used a technique known as optogenetics, which involves the genetic modification of neurons to make them sensitive to light.

    To map the precise route specific to social signal transmission, the researchers illuminated all neural routes emanating from DG-CA3 to other parts of the brain. To pinpoint the route responsible for the conduction of social memories, the scientists switched on and off the various neural pathways and observed the effect on animal behavior.

    Results revealed a neural highway that begins in the DG-CA3 circuit. From there the social signals get transmitted to the posterior part of the hippocampus, which in turn submits the data outside of the hippocampus to an area in the forebrain called the nucleus accumbens, known to govern a range of social behaviors and to play a role in reward seeking, aversion, addiction and pleasure.

    Taken together the findings reveal that oxytocin receptors act as critical catalysts that ignite neural computation of social stimuli in a specific circuit within the hippocampus, which relays the signals to other brain regions for further analysis and subsequent decision making.


  10. Study suggests major life events shared on social media revive dormant connections

    by Ashley

    From the University of Notre Dame press release:

    Online social networking has revolutionized the way people communicate and interact with one another, despite idiosyncrasies we all love to hate — think top-10 lists of the most annoying people and habits on social media.

    However, there are specific advantages to using social media, beyond the simple joys — and occasional annoyances — of reconnecting and gossiping with old friends about babies, birthdays and baptisms.

    New research from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business examines the impact of major life events, such as getting married or graduating from college, on social network evolution, which, the study shows, has important implications for business practices, such as in marketing.

    “Who Cares About Your Big Day? Impact of Life Events on Dynamics of Social Networks,” forthcoming in Decision Sciences by Hong Guo, associate professor of business analytics, and Sarv Devaraj, professor of business, (along with Arati Srinivasan of Providence College), shows that major life events not only get more social media attention overall, but also bring long dormant connections back into social interaction.

    The researchers specifically focus on two key characteristics of individuals’ social networks: indegree of ties and relational embeddedness. Indegree is the number of ties directed to an individual. Those with high indegree centrality are assumed to be the most popular, prestigious and powerful people in a network due to the many connections that they have with others.

    “We find that the indegree of ties increases significantly following a major life event, and that this impact is stronger for more active users in the network,” Guo says. “Interestingly, we find that the broadcast of major life events helps to revive dormant ties as reflected by a decrease in embeddedness following a life event.”

    Relational embeddedness is the extent to which a user communicates with only a subset of partners. Social networking sites allow users to manage a larger network of weak ties and at the same time provide a mechanism for the very rapid dissemination of information pertaining to important life events such as engagements, weddings or births.

    “We show that major events provide an opportunity for users to revive communication with their dormant ties while simultaneously eliciting responses or communication from a user’s passive or weak ties,” Guo says. “Increased communication with weak ties thereby reduces the extent of embeddedness. We also find that one-time life events, such as weddings, have a greater impact than recurring life events like birthdays on the evolution of individuals’ social networks.”

    So why does this matter outside of our social media circles?

    “Knowing this, advertisers may better target their ads to major life events. For example, a travel agent marketing a honeymoon package can target a user who has shared that they just got married,” Guo says. “From the social networking sites’ perspective, various design features may be set up to enable and entice users to better share their life events, like how Facebook helps friends promote birthdays.”