Neuroscience and Society

How Does Media Use Influence Brain Development In Adolescence?

Nathiya Vasantha Kumaran


For the current generation of adolescents, technology has been integrated into every aspect of their lives, including school work, entertainment, and communication among peers. With an increasing number of teenagers owning mobile devices, such as smartphones, the number of accounts on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, continue to grow daily. Even though these websites allow teenagers to easily share information, pictures, and opinions with the public, the constant pressure to be accepted by peers has negative effects on a developing brain. During adolescence, many different regions of the brain are developing, especially those which deal with the social and emotional aspects of life. Thus, this makes teenagers more sensitive to online rejection and peer influence [1].


Developing Regions of the Brain During Adolescence

    Between childhood and adulthood, teenagers go through a developmental stage referred to as adolescence. Up until this time period, parental influence is more significant than society on an individual; however, during puberty, this changes. In addition to changes in the way in which teenagers extract information from their surroundings, the organ responsible for processing this information, the brain, also goes through modifications. Different structures, as well as cognitive and socio-affective functions, develop within the brain. After extensive research, scientists have concluded that regions of the brain known for social understanding and communication, including the medial prefrontal cortex and amygdala, go through the most alterations during this time period [2]. The prefrontal cortex, an important area of the brain used for planning, memory, organization, and regulating mood, continues to mature throughout childhood, ultimately resulting in adults having better reasoning skills. The amygdala, which is known for emotional processing, goes through extensive changes during adolescence as well. In addition to the maturation of specific regions of the brain, specific processes also are further developed. The white matter pathways, which play an important role in the central nervous system by connecting spatially separated areas and fostering efficient information exchange, go through changes that allow humans to better control their behavior [3]. During childhood, many humans believe that reward comes immediately after an action is completed; however, with the development of white matter pathways, people are able to recognize that reward isn’t always immediate. Another important function of the brain that is drastically developed during this span of life is the connections between brain cells, formally known as synapses. Although the brain goes through its first cycle of synaptic production followed by pruning, the elimination of unused brain connections, between birth and the age of three, the second cycle takes place during puberty. The process takes place in girls at the age of 11 and in boys at the age of 12. By the time the individual reaches the age of 13, the amount of grey matter has been significantly reduced [4]. Since the teenage brain is constantly undergoing changes, it is important to keep in mind that the activities in which they take part can shape the way their brains develop.


Teenagers and Acceptance

    Due to the numerous changes that take place in various regions of the brain during adolescence, especially in areas connected to social behavior, it is likely that social media has a significant impact on development. From the very early stages of life, humans are constantly yearning to be accepted by their peers. However, this need for acceptance is not a new concept. In the past, our ancestors evolved to favor group living, as it helped them survive harsh environments and ensured safety [4]. Even though the concept of acceptance is one that individuals have struggled with for generations, today’s teenagers have the additional pressure of being accepted online.  Each social media platform with which teenagers engage has a way to convey to a user how much they are accepted by their peers. The more the comments, likes, and followers, the more accepted the person is considered to be.

    Although it may not seem like these artificial measures of popularity have an impact on the development of a teenage brain, it has been proven that the brain responds to social acceptance the same way it does to receiving other rewards [6][7]. By conducting extensive research, scientists have discovered that individuals perceive social rewards, such as receiving money, in two different overarching regions: the basal ganglia, located at the base of the forebrain, and the prefrontal cortex, located in the frontal lobe. Within the basal ganglia, both the ventral striatum and ventral tegmentum are responsible for how the brain reacts to social rewards. Meanwhile, in the prefrontal cortex, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is responsible for processing emotional responses through decision making and self-control [8]. Since all of these areas are still developing in adolescents, the feeling of acceptance is especially important during this time period due to its impact on one’s identity.


Peer Influence

    During adolescence, individuals become more interested in the opinions of their peers than those of the adult figures in their life. Accordingly, teenagers are more likely to post and interact with images that they believe the majority of society, more specifically their friends, will accept. Researchers have found that girls are especially sensitive to body image on social media and have preconceived notions about how someone should look. When a teenage girl with lower self-esteem was showed an image of the ideal body image, the activity levels in the anterior cingulate cortex were greater. The anterior cingulate cortex, the area of the brain responsible for connecting the emotional limbic system and the cognitive prefrontal cortex, has an impact on the way one regulates one’s emotions [10].  The image on the left confirms this finding as well as the hypothesis that different areas of the brain become more active after a teenager changes his or her opinion due to peer influence [1]. This evidence suggests that social media has an influence on the way one attempts to portray oneself since teens are constantly trying to prove to themselves and their peers that they fit society's definition of perfection.

    However, peer influence doesn’t solely impact the type of posts individuals share on social media platforms; it also impacts how teenagers interact with posts in their feed. By analyzing prior studies, researchers have found that people are more inclined to like a post with a greater amount of likes than one with a fewer amount. For example, if a teenager saw a post with a hundred likes that had  also been liked by a large percentage of their friends, then that teenager is more likely to interact with it than a post with only one like [11]. When viewing an image with a greater number of likes, the amount of activity in the ventral striatum increases. In this experiment, researchers concluded that older adolescents, including upper high schoolers and college students, were more impacted by this form of peer influence, since the activity in the ventral striatum was greater. Based on the information which scientists have uncovered, it can be inferred that peer influence through media presence during adolescence  can greatly impact the way an individual perceives not only themselves but the world around them.


Going Forward

    During adolescence, teenagers go through mass amounts of developmental changes in their brains, especially in areas responsible for social interaction. The social regions of the brain are easily impacted by external stimuli, including acceptance, whether it be online or in real life. In an era where social media platforms are becoming an ever important part of our social lives, an increased amount of teenagers are using them. Since individuals begin to explore these platforms around the same time they go through these changes, their self-esteem may become affected, since they are constantly being judged by others online. In order to ensure that individuals don’t suffer from a lack of self-esteem, it is important for adults to boost teenagers’ confidences. Without proper confidence boosts, individuals can begin to perceive themselves in negative ways due to what they have been exposed to online.


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Nathiya Vasantha Kumaran

Nathiya Vasantha Kumaran

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