Study: How Social Media 'Likes' Affect Teenagers' Brains

Are teenagers addicted to "likes" on social media? Studies show that it's entirely possible.

On Facebook, people can give posts positive feedback by pressing the "like" button. Sites like Instagram and Twitter have a similar set-up, allowing users to either "like" or "favorite" a post, respectively.

According to The New York Times, this feedback has an intoxicating effect on teenagers' brains. Receiving a lot of "likes" on a post activates the reward center of the brain. That same region can also be activated by thoughts of other pleasurable concepts like sex, money or food.

A 2016 study from the University of California, Los Angeles, recreated a social networking site similar to Instagram in which users share photos and could receive "likes" from their peers. As reported in The New York Times, the participants, who ranged from 13 to 18 years old, looked at a number of photos on the fake website, including some that the teenagers themselves posted. 

Brain activity in the neural regions associated with reward processing increased when looking at pictures that had a lot of likes. This type of activity only increased further when the teenagers saw a photo of themselves that garnered a lot of positive feedback.

Although all other addictive experiences -- sex, drugs and food, for example -- activate this same reward region in the brain, it still remains unclear if one can become addicted to social media "likes." According to Time Magazine, the study could raise the possibility that social media endorsements are the first step toward addiction. The pleasure associated with online attention does not follow any real pattern; people can never know how many "likes" a post will receive before they share it.

Because the brain cannot find a pattern for how to receive the same reward every time, it will continue to fuel a behavior until a pattern makes itself known. This means that since the rewards associated with social media occur randomly, a teenager can possibly become addicted to the quest of garnering the greatest amount of "likes."

Sources: The New York Times, Time Magazine / Photo credit: Thomas Angermann via Global Panorama/​Flickr

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