Social media friends cannot replace real friends

Although the topic of friendship has been extensively researched, there is no study that could use brain imaging to distinguish between fake friendships between influencers and other celebrities.

In a recent Brain Sciences study, scientists looked at brain activity evoked by names of popular and loved influencers and other celebrities and compared it to brain activity evoked by names of real loved ones friends and family.

Study: Brain activity shows that unlike influencers and other celebrities, there’s nothing better than a real friend. Photo credit: /


The first social networking platform,, was developed in 1995, followed by in 1997. Although these platforms were designed to connect with other people, instant messaging wasn’t introduced until the early 2000s. Over the years, these platforms have been improved and made smartphone-friendly to allow users to stay connected with others, including those living in other parts of the world.

Originally, the term “social media” described the concept of staying connected, communicating with people online, or sharing information instantly, regardless of location. However, despite the expected benefits of social media, several negative consequences associated with its use have been identified.

In 2021, multiple studies reported that social media abuse causes behavioral symptoms of addiction that subsequently lead to a lack of time for healthier or more meaningful activities. So far, however, there has been a lack of studies that deal with questions relating to the concept of fake or virtual friends.

The concept of friendship includes some distinctive features, such as: B. a relationship between individuals, a private relationship, and the willingness of individuals to share their true character or personality. In comparison, fake friendships are initiated by bloggers, influencers, YouTubers and others who are not interested in mutual friendships but are trying to build closeness and trust among their followers.

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Although a young social media user supports an influencer through loyalty and closeness to them, influencers are only interested in making an impact without any attachment to their followers. In addition, these influencers are often only geared towards financial gain and are not looking for a real friendship.

Influencers use platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, and Twitter to generate financial gain by showcasing sponsored products. As a result, many influencers become extremely well-known celebrities, especially among young social media consumers who follow them on a daily basis. In fact, most social media consumers have felt strong feelings of genuine friendship and trust in these influencers.

About the study

Using electroencephalography (EEG), an analytical technique for creating brain images, brain activities triggered by the names of selected influencers followed by the person were examined. Then these brain images were compared to the brain activity elicited by the names of real-world loved ones.

For this study, a total of 30 participants were recruited and invited to visit the Freud Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience and Behavior Lab (Freud CanBeLab).

All participants provided name lists of fake, real and no friends. The fake friends group included 20 names of the most followed and popular influencers or other celebrities, while the real friends group included another 20 names of real friends and relatives. The No Friend group included 20 names of people with whom they felt no connection.

Two participants were excluded from the study due to measurement artifacts. Therefore, 28 participants, 18 men and 10 women, were presented with selected names in random order and their brain activities were recorded by EEG. Imaging data were used to calculate event-related potentials (ERPs).

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study results

The mean age of the participants was 21.93 years and none had a history of neuropathology. In the study cohort, sixteen participants reported consuming between one and two hours of social media each day, while seven participants used two to three hours a day and five reported more than three hours of daily social media use.

Interestingly, intimacy between fake and real friends was observed. The name of someone close to you triggered similar brain simulations as your own name; However, the signals generated by a famous name and an unknown name differed significantly.

A brief effect was observed in the left frontotemporal region, beginning about 250 milliseconds (ms) after the stimulus to process real and non-friend names; However, both ERPs differed from those caused by fake friend names. A longer effect of approx. 400 ms was then created on the front left and right.

Although temporoparietal ERPs discriminated between fake and real friend names, no friend name elicited similar brain activities as fake friend names in these regions in the later processing phase. Typically, real friend names elicited the most negative brain potentials, which were interpreted through the highest levels of brain activation.


The current study provided empirical evidence that the human brain can differentiate between an influencer or celebrity being followed (one-way friendship) and a person loved in real life (mutual friendship).

Magazine reference:

Walla P, Kulzer D, Leeb A, et al. (2023) Brain activity reveals that unlike influencers and other celebrities, there’s nothing quite like a real friend. brain science. 13(5); 831. doi:10.3390/brainsci13050831

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