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Lauren Sherman Essay

Keeping in touch is no longer about face to face, but instead screen to screen, highlighted by the fact that more than 1 billion people are using Facebook every day.
Social media has become second nature -- but what impact is this having on our brain?
In a recent study, researchers at the UCLA brain mapping center used an fMRI scanner to image the brains of 32 teenagers as they used a bespoke social media app resembling Instagram. By watching the activity inside different regions of the brain as the teens used the app, the team found certain regions became activated by "likes", with the brain's reward center becoming especially active.
"When teens learn that their own pictures have supposedly received a lot of likes, they show significantly greater activation in parts of the brain's reward circuitry," says lead author Lauren Sherman. "This is the same group of regions responding when we see pictures of a person we love or when we win money."
The teenagers were shown more than 140 images where 'likes' were believed to from their peers, but were in fact assigned by the research team.
Scans revealed that the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain's reward circuitry, was especially active when teens saw a large number of likes on their own photos, which could inspire them to use social media more often.
As part of the experiment, participants were also shown a range of "neutral" photos showing things like food and friends, and "risky" photos depicting cigarettes and alcohol. But the type of image had no impact on the number of "likes" given by the teens. they were instead more likely to 'like' the more popular photos, regardless of what they showed. This could lead to both a positive and negative influence from peers online.
Sherman believes these results could have important implications among this age group.
"Reward circuitry is thought to be particularly sensitive in adolescence," says Sherman, "It could be explaining, at least in part, why teens are such avid social media users."
Adolescence is a period that is very important for social learning, which could explain why teens are often more tuned in to what's going on in their respective cultures. With the rise of social media, Sherman thinks we may even be learning to read likes and shares instead of facial expressions.
"Before, if you were having a face to face interaction everything is qualitative. You use someone's gestures or facial expressions, that sort of thing, to see how effective your message is," she says.
"Now if you go online, one of the ways that you gauge the effectiveness of your message is in the number of likes, favorites or retweets, and this is something that's really different and unique about online interaction."
However, the study may not be applicable to everyone, according to Dr. Iroise Dumontheil,at Birkbeck University.
"[The study] only has adolescents and so they can't really claim anything specific about whether it's adolescents who react to this differently compared to adults."
Dumontheil does, however, concur that social media is affecting our brain, particularly its plasticity, which is the way the brain grows and changes after experiencing different things.
"Whenever you learn something new or you experience something, it's encoded in your brain, and it's encoded by subtle changes in the strength of connections between neurons," says Dumontheil.
For example, one study showed that the white matter in an adults' brains changed as they learned how to juggle over a period of several months. "They found that if you scan [the brains of] adults before they learn how to juggle, and then three months later, you can see changes in the brain structure," says Dumontheil.
Time spent on social media could, therefore, also cause the brain to change and grow.
"We might be a bit less good at reading subtle expressions on faces that are moving, but we might be much quicker at monitoring what's going on in a whole group of our friends," says Dumontheil.
So are these new skills a good or a bad thing? Neither, she says. "It's just a way we have of adapting to our environment."

If you have teenagers or know them, you’ll agree they always seem to be glued to their smartphones -- or, more precisely, the social media platforms these phones contain. 

But while it’s easy to joke that teens are obsessed with Instagram, Snapchat and probably a bunch of apps we don't even know about, there's new evidence that might explain why: Neuroscientists have found that seeing all those “likes” on a social media post may be especially intoxicating to growing brains.

In the first study to scan teenagers' brains while they use social media, scientists from the University of California, Los Angeles found that a certain part of the brain associated with rewards hums with activity whenever teens see one of their photos earn a lot of “likes.”

The researchers also found that "liking" had a cumulative effect: When peers liked a photo, teens were more likely to like the photo themselves, no matter the content.  

Almost 90 percent of American teens say they use at least one social media site, and 71 percent of teens say they use at least two sites. And that can have negative effects: A recent survey found that half of teens feel addicted to their devices. Other research has found that pressure from social media might be linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety in teens. 

While this current brain scan study didn't delve into these areas, it does offer clues as to why social media is so irresistible to the teen brain -- perhaps even in the face of negative feelings.  

"It may be that one of the reasons that teens are such active users on social media is that they’re really sensitive to these likes,” said Lauren Sherman, lead author of the brain scan study and a researcher at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center in a phone call with HuffPost. Secondly, she said, they’re "really sensitive to what their peers are doing online."

Instagram 'lights up' the brains reward system

Sherman and team recruited 32 teenagers, aged 13 to 18, to take part in a small, photo-based social network similar to Instagram. They asked the teens to submit 40 photos from their own personal Instagram accounts to be part of the feed, and then showed them a total of 148 photos from these submissions on a computer screen.

The researchers told the individual participants that the photo stream had already been reviewed by 50 other teens as part of the study, and these photos had earned “likes” from these other teens. (In reality, the researchers themselves had assigned “likes” to these photos).

As the teens viewed the photos, researchers scanned their brains with an MRI machine and observed that certain images stimulated parts of their brain. For instance, when a participant saw that their own photo had earned a large number of “likes," several centers in the brain associated with social activity and visuals lit up.

One region in particular, called the nucleus accumbens, was especially active. This region is linked to rewards and lights up when a person does pleasurable things like eating chocolate or winning money, the researchers noted. This suggests that the experience of being validated with “likes” is extremely rewarding, the researchers wrote.

Separately, when the researchers asked teens to choose photos to like, they discovered that teens were heavily influenced to like a photo when it already had a large number of likes. 

Why this affects teens in particular

Past research on the nucleus accumbens shows that compared to kids or adults, teens have exaggerated activity in this area of the brain when it comes to rewarding activities. The nucleus accumbens also grows to its largest size during adolescence before it starts to shrink, which is why, “nothing -- whether it’s being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice-cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music -- will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager,” psychology professor Laurence Steinberg explained in a 2015 New Yorker article about the teenage brain.

The over-activity and size of the nucleus accumbens can explain everything from teens’ risk-taking behavior to intense pleasure seeking to their tendency to make poorly thought-out decisions. It could also explain why teens feel such a strong connection to the rewards that come from social media, Sherman said.

Of course, teens have been eager for validation from their peers and have been easily influenced by their peers long before social media became such a prominent part of everyone’s lives.

But the one thing that’s different about social media, Sherman explains, is that it provides a quantitative measure of peer approval in terms of the number of likes one can earn in a single post. The “likes” on the photo provide an immediate, tangible reward, which lights up parts of the adolescent brain like the nucleus accumbens that are primed to overreact to every pleasure and happiness, Sherman explained.

“That’s one of the reasons social media is more compelling,” she said. “It helps explain what’s going on and why teens find it so interesting." 

Social media influence isn't necessarily a bad thing

These and other findings don't mean that social media access will necessarily harm teens, Sherman explained.

Her study found that teens were influenced by the “liking” activity of their peers no matter what the subject of the photo was -- neutral, positive in nature or "risky" (say, drinking or smoking) -- which means that peer influence could go either way.

If you’re a parent with a teen who is obsessed with social media, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are being negatively influenced, Sherman said. However, parents should realize that their teen’s online social networks are probably more vast than their day-to-day, IRL friendships, and that their teen is probably drawing from a bigger pool of influences than a parent would think.

“Peer influence is kind of agnostic; it can be a good thing, it can be a potentially bad thing,” Sherman said. “Ultimately what really matters is what teens are seeing online, what their peers are posting and liking, and if these are pro-social, positive behaviors.”

For more perspective on how to encourage teens to have a healthy relationship with their devices, check out experts who offer this counterintuitive advice for parents: Rethink time limits, be honest about your own relationship with your smartphone, and get to the root of the issue -- depression, anxiety or bullying --that could be behind problematic social media use. 

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.