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It’s Like A Drug – Reward Circuitry and Digital Media

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“When the teens saw their own photos with a large number of likes, we saw activity across a wide variety of regions in the brain” explains Lauren Sherman, a researcher in the brain mapping center and the UCLA branch of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles (Sherman, 2016).


Sherman was referring to the way in which Facebook likes create the same neurochemical response in the brain as winning money or eating chocolate.


Using UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, Sherman and her team showed 32 teenagers, ages 13-18, 148 photographs on a computer screen for 12 minutes, including 40 photos that each teenager submitted, and analyzed their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. The students had been told that they were participating in a small social network similar to the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram, and while each photo also displayed the number of likes it had supposedly received from other teenage participants – in reality, the number of likes was assigned by the researchers.


When the teenagers were viewing their photos with a large number of likes, the nucleus accumbens, which is part of the brain’s reward circuitry – and particularly sensitive during adolescence – was highly active. Further, in deciding whether to click that they liked a photo, the teenagers were highly influenced by the number of likes the photo had.


Sherman explains, “We showed the exact same photo with a lot of likes to half of the teens and to the other half with just a few likes. When they saw a photo with more likes, they were significantly more likely to like it themselves” (Sherman, 2016).


Even more compelling, the study included three types of photos: “neutral” photos – which included pictures of food and of friends – “risky” photos – including of cigarettes, alcohol and teenagers wearing provocative clothing, and the photos the participants had taken themselves, an in each case, they were influenced by peer approval (Dapretto et al., 2016).


Sherman explains, “For all three types of photographs – neutral, risky and even their own – the teens were more likely to click like if more people had liked them than if fewer people liked them. The conformity effect, which was particularly large for their own pictures, shows the importance of peer-approval” (Sherman, 2016).


And when teenagers looked at risky photos compared with neutral photos, there was an interesting response in the brain – they had less activation in areas associated with “cognitive control” and “response inhibition,” including the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral prefrontal cortices and lateral parietal cortices (Dapretto et al., 2016).


As these brain regions are involved in decision-making and can inhibit us from engaging in certain activities, seeing photos that depict risky behavior seems to decrease activity in the regions that put the brakes on, which potentially can weaken self-control.


While this study only looked at online behavior, in the teenagers’ real lives, notes Mirella Dapretto, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, the influence of their friends is likely to be even more dramatic (Dapretto, 2016).


“In the study, this was a group of virtual strangers to them, and yet they were still responding to peer influence; their willingness to conform manifested itself both at the brain level and in what they chose to like. We should expect the effect would be magnified in real life, when teens are looking at likes by people who are important to them” (Dapretto, 2016).


The unnerving possibility for parents, is that kids can be more influenced by people who may engage in more risk-taking behavior than they, or their immediate friends do. On the other hand, notes Sherman, the reverse is also true, and kids can be influenced by positive behavior – especially when it garners several likes.


However, teens’ self-identity is influenced by the opinions of others, and while peer pressure to conform has long existed, online likes appear to have particularly compelling appeal – being associated with reward in the brain.


In the words of Sherman, “In the past, teens made their own judgments about how everyone around them was responding. When it comes to likes, there’s no ambiguity” (Sherman, 2016). And this should be a concern to us all.

It’s Like A Drug – Reward Circuitry and Digital Media

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2019). It’s Like A Drug – Reward Circuitry and Digital Media. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 11 Jul 2019
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