The number of Facebook friends you have and the size of particular brain regions are directly linked say researchers from University College London.
The study – which involved 125 university students who were all active users of the social networking site – found a correlation between the number of Facebook friends the student had, and the size of three regions of their brain.
It also showed that the more Facebook friends the student had, the more ‘real-world’ friends they had.
“Online social networks are massively influential, yet we understand very little about the impact they have on our brains,” said Professor Geraint Rees, a Wellcome Trust Senior Clinical Research Fellow at UCL. “This has led to a lot of unsupported speculation the internet is somehow bad for us.”
“Our study will help us begin to understand how interactions with the world are mediated through social networks. This should allow us to start asking intelligent questions about the relationship between the internet and the brain.”
The research found a strong correlation between the number of Facebook friends an individual had and the amount of grey matter in several regions of the brain. Three regions – the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and right entorhinal cortex – correlated with online social networks suggesting the more friends the larger the area.
Previous research showed the amygdala – associated with processing memory and emotional responses was larger in people with a larger network of real and online friends.
“We have found some interesting brain regions that that seem to link to the number of friends we have – both ‘real’ and ‘virtual’,” said Dr Ryota Kanai, first author of the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
“The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time – this will help us answer the question of whether the internet is changing our brains.”
Rees said the finding supported the idea that most Facebook users use the site to support their existing social relationships, maintaining or reinforcing these friendships, rather than just creating network of entirely new, virtual friends.