The teen brain likes social media 'likes'

Neuroscientists have found that seeing all those “likes” on a social media post may be especially intoxicating to growing brains.

Social media "likes" appear to have a powerful effect on the teen brain, new research suggests. Apparently, the same brain circuits that are activated by eating chocolate and winning money are activated when teenagers see large numbers of “likes” on their own photos or the photos of peers in a social network, according to a first-of-its-kind UCLA study that scanned teens’ brains while using social media.

32 teenagers, ages 13-18, were told they were participating in a small social network similar to the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram. In an experiment at UCLA’s Ahmanson–Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, the researchers showed them 148 photographs on a computer screen for 12 minutes, including 40 photos that each teenager submitted, and analyzed their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Each photo also displayed the number of likes it had supposedly received from other teenage participants, but in reality, the number of likes were assigned by the researchers, with the participants informed of the situation after the study finished.

During the test, there was great activity in the brain’s reward circuitry, which is believed to be more sensitive in adolescents.

Sherman explained, “We showed the exact same photo with a lot of likes to half of the teens and to the other half with just a few likes. When they saw a photo with more likes, they were significantly more likely to like it themselves. Teens react differently to information when they believe it has been endorsed by many or few of their peers, even if these peers are strangers.”

The region found to be particularly active is called the nucleus accubens, which is parts of the brain's reward circuitry. It is thought the reward circuitry is particularly sensitive during adolescence.

"We should expect the effect would be magnified in real life, when teens are looking at likes by people who are important to them," she added.

Should parents be worried about social media? Much like other media, social media have both positive and negative features, the researchers said. Many teens and young adults befriend unfamiliar people online, and that should concern parents, Dapretto said.

However, Sherman points out a possible advantage of social networks. “If your teen’s friends are displaying positive behavior, then it’s fabulous that your teen will see that behavior and be influenced by it,” she said. “It’s important for parents to be aware of who their teens interact with online and what these friends and acquaintances are posting and liking. In addition, teens’ self-identity is influenced by the opinions of others, as earlier studies have shown. Our data certainly seem to reflect that as well.”

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