Is social media creating virtual peer pressure?

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Teens spend a lot of spare time keeping up with their friends online, reading comments and posting photos. New research suggests that the simple act of “liking” a friend’s social media post may create a form of virtual peer influence. 

When your teen’s head is buried in a smartphone, wonder what’s got his or her attention?

Sites like Instagram allow users to post and share photos, leave comments and “like” what they’re seeing.

What do all those hours of scrolling, tapping and “liking” do to teens’ brains? Lauren Sherman is a cognitive neuroscientist at Temple University in Philadelphia. Sherman and her colleagues studied the brain activity of 32 teenagers, ages 13 to 18. Teens submitted personal photos. Then they were placed in an MRI machine, and viewed an Instagram-like app. During the session, teens could see the number of likes displayed on each photo. After the session, scientists analyzed the teens’ brain scans and saw activity in the reward center of the brain.

“That brain region became more active when teens saw that other kids’ photos had a lot of likes and particularly when they saw that they got a lot of likes on their own photos,” Sherman explained. “This suggests that over time likes could change the way people interact with their online world.” 

Sherman said the study suggests teens may be influenced by a large network of peers online. Some may be kids that parents haven’t met. She said parents should get comfortable with social media so they can keep the lines of communication open. 

Sherman said it’s common for parents to talk to a teen about peer pressure when they are face-to-face with their friends. She says that conversation might need to shift to include information about what social media “likes” might do to both positive and negative behavior.