Instagram Likes Activate Reward Regions of Teen Brain

Getting an Instagram like is basically the same as winning a dollar or eating an Oreo as far as your brain is concerned. At least, that’s what a study by a team of psychologists and neuroscientists from UCLA just found, sort of.

The authors focused their research on the most wired-in of all demographics: teenagers. In the study, participants were asked to view a series of fake Instagram photos where the number of likes had been preset by researchers. The teenagers were also given the option of liking photos themselves, all while sitting in an fMRI machine to measure their brain activity.

By concentrating on teenagers, the researchers hoped not only to get a clearer picture of what the teen brain on social media looks like but to gain insight into how teens influence each other socially through the internet.

The first thing the study showed is that Instagram likes appear to activate regions of the brain associated with rewards, at least in teenagers. Part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens was especially active in teens who viewed pictures with more likes. Regions associated with social cognition became more active as well.

The researchers also looked at what factors influence how likely teens are to like Instagram pictures themselves. What they found was that teens’ likes were based partly on their peers’ likes: teens liked the same pictures more frequently when those pictures already had more likes.

Lastly, the researchers measured how the actual content of images showed up in teens’ brains. In particular, because peer influence can lead teens to engage in risky behaviors like drinking and smoking, the researchers divided the Instagram pictures into two groups, separating those that depicted risky behaviors from those that didn’t.

It turned out that when teens viewed the risky pictures, areas of the brain involved in self-control and inhibition became less active. So peers posting or liking these kinds of pictures could subtly push teens toward taking risks, although the study didn’t explore how the differences in brain activation affect actual behavior.

While the research was done on adolescents, it’s not like Instagram just stops being fun when you hit 18. The findings have implications for people of all ages and shed some light on the neuroscience and psychology of social media usage. Perhaps in the long-run, they will even lead to an effective treatment.

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Image: Wikipedia/Enoc vt