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Revealed: How social media influences the brains of teenagers

One of the reasons, it seems, that a high social media use if addictive is because it stimulates areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward. A University of California – Los Angeles study has scanned the brains of a number of teenagers as they used social media.

The key finding was that the same brain processes activated by eating chocolate or winning money, respond when teenagers see large numbers of ‘Likes’ on their social media posts. Unsurprisingly this revelation has been trending high on, erm, social media.

That social media is addictive is trending high on social media sites like Twitter.

That social media is addictive is trending high on social media sites like Twitter.

With the research, which has yet to be published in a peer reviewed paper, a small number of teenagers (32 people) were studied. The teenagers were aged between 13 and 18. For the experiment a social network was set up, looking similar to Instagram. The teenagers were told the study was to test drive an alternative platform to the popular photo sharing site.

For the study, based at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, the teenagers were shown different photographs over a 12 minute period. Included in the test set were 40 photographs submitted by each teenager. Each photograph was marked with a number of ‘likes’, supposedly from other teenage participants (but in reality marked by the researchers). Some photographs were classed as ‘neutral’, such as a picture of food; other photos were classed as ‘risky’, such as cigarettes or people in provocative clothing.

From the start of the study, each teenager was hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment, designed to measure brain activity. This technique is a functional neuroimaging procedure that detects changes associated with blood flow. The basis is that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled and when an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region correspondingly increases.

It was found that when a teenager saw their own photograph with a high number of likes, certain brain regions became more active. The region showing the most intense activity was the nucleus accumbens. This region is associated with feelings of ‘reward.’

A secondary aspect to the research was that when deciding whether to like a photograph themselves the teenagers were influenced by the number of likes a photo already had. There was little difference whether the photo was neutral, risky of a photo provided by the teenager taking part.

Thus a form of peer pressure was at play — the more likes a photo had then the greater the chance a teenager taking part in the study would also like it. This showed that conformance, a common trait in general society, manifests in the same way on social media. Moreover, it suggests social media is a powerful influencing force, for good or for bad. The extent to which peer pressure influences a teenager and what the implications of this are will need to be the subject of further research.

The study has been published in the journal Psychological Science. The research paper is titled “The Power of the Like in Adolescence Effects of Peer Influence on Neural and Behavioral Responses to Social Media.”

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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