This is the Teenage Brain on Social Media

An article in Neuroscience News about a recent (paywalled – grr) brain-scan study of teenagers, predictably finding that having your photos liked on social media sparks off a lot of brain activity, notably in areas associated with reward, as well as social activity and visual attention. So far so so, and a bit odd that this is what Neuroscience News chose to focus on, because that’s only a small subsection of the study and by far the least interesting part. What’s really interesting to me about the study is that the researchers mainly investigated the effects of existing likes (or, as they put it ‘quanitfiable social endorsements’) on whether teens liked a photo, and scanned their brains while doing so. As countless other studies (including mine) have suggested, not just for teens, the effects were significant. As many studies have previously shown, photos endorsed by peers – even strangers – are a great deal more likely to be liked, regardless of their content. The researchers actually faked the likes and noted that the effect was the same whether showing ‘neutral’ content or risky behaviours like smoking and drinking. Unlike most existing studies, the researchers feel confident to describe this in terms of peer-approval and conformity, thanks to the brain scans. As the abstract puts it:

“Viewing photos with many (compared with few) likes was associated with greater activity in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention.”

The paper itself is a bit fuzzy about which areas are activated under which conditions: not being adept at reading brain scans, I am still unsure about whether social cognition played a similarly important role when seeing likes of one’s own photos compared with others liked by many people, though there are clearly some significant differences between the two. This bothers me a bit because, within the discussion of the study itself, they say:

“Adolescents model appropriate behavior and interests through the images they post (behavioral display) and reinforce peers’ behavior through the provision of likes (behavioral reinforcement). Unlike offline forms of peer influence, however, quantifiable social endorsement is straightforward, unambiguous, and, as the name suggests, purely quantitative.”

I don’t think this is a full explanation as it is confounded by the instrument used. An alternative plausible explanation is that, when unsure of our own judgement, we use other cues (which, in this case, can only ever come from other people thanks to the design of the system) to help make up our minds. A similar effect would have been observed using other cues such as, for example, list position or size, with no reference to how many others had liked the photos or not. Most of us (at least, most that don’t know how Google works) do not see the ordering of Google Search results as social endorsement, though that is exactly what it is, but list position is incredibly influential in our choice of links to click and, presumably, our neural responses to such items on the page. It would be interesting to further explore the extent to which the perception of value comes from the fact that it is liked by peers as opposed to the fact that the system itself (a proxy expert) is highlighting an image as important. My suspicion is that there might be a quantifiable social effect, at least in some subjects, but it might not be as large as that shown here. There’s very good evidence that subjects scanned much-like photos with greater care, which accords with other studies in the area, though it does not necessarily correlate with greater social conformity. As ever, we look for patterns and highlights to help guide our behaviours – we do not and cannot treat all data as equal.

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in this apart from that though. I am particularly interested in the activiation of the frontal gyrus, previously associated with imitation, when looking at much liked photos. This is highly significant in the transmission of memes as well as in social learning generally.

Address of the bookmark: http://neurosciencenews.com/nucleus-accumbens-social-media-4348/

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair.
I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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