It’s no secret that teenagers are influenced by their peers. Now, a new study conducted by researchers at UCLA’s Ahmanson–Lovelace Brain Mapping Center looked specifically at how teen brains reacted to “likes” of photos on social media. The main finding was that alarge number of likes resulted in activity across a variety of brain structures.
The participants’ brains were analyzed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and the researchers were particularly interested in the part of the brain dealing with reward circuitry. They found that the part of the striatum called the nucleus accumbens was especially active when the teens saw that a photo of theirs (or of a peer’s) had received a lot of likes. This resulted in brain activity that is similar to the reaction a person might get after eating chocolate or winning money.
These findings are in line with other studies done on teen’s behavioral motivations––namely, the allure of rewards. A study conducted in 2014 concluded that rewards, even small ones, entice teens more than they do adults.
Peer-pressured influence on social media mirrors what goes on in their real lives, where the willingness to conform and receive peer approval is an active determinant in their decision-making. A key difference, though, is that in this study their peers were virtual strangers to them and yet they still responded heavily to peer influence, as both the brain activity and the number of likes demonstrated.
Should parents be concerned with this reality? Mirella Dapretto, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, and one of the lead authors of the study, says befriending people online they don’t know well “opens up the possibility of a child being more influenced by people who may engage in more risk-taking behavior than your child or your child’s immediate friends.”
Read more about this study from the UCLA Newsroom here.