The Hidden Influence of Your Social Media

Have you ever had a negative reaction to a politician or business who you thought was paying too much attention to public opinion instead of doing the good/right/admirable thing?

If you’re a social media user, you could be guilty of the same thing…without realizing it.

As reported by NPR, researchers recently monitored the brain activity of several teenagers as they looked at what appeared to be an Instagram feed. The feed contained the subjects’ photos, as well as photos that were presented to them as having been taken by their friends. The latter were actually selected by the researchers themselves.

And what did the study find?

The pictures receiving more likes, whether they were taken by the subjects themselves or their “friends,” generated greater activity in the reward centers of the teenagers’ brains.* While those results might be expected, that’s not all the study revealed.

This excerpt from a conversation about the results between correspondent Shankar Vedantam and Morning Edition host David Greene explains:

VEDANTAM: Researchers manipulated the pictures supposedly taken by the friends of the teenagers so adolescents saw different pictures that were supposedly popular. So you might see a picture and see that it had 50 likes, and I might see the very same picture and see that it received only five likes. The brains of the teenagers responded very strongly to the pictures deemed popular, regardless of which pictures they were. In fact, the researchers asked the adolescents to themselves like photos that they admired. And they found that if a teen saw a picture with lots of likes, she tended to like it herself. If another teen saw the same picture with only a few likes, he tended not to like it himself.

GREENE: Oh, interesting. So it really can have a snowballing effect.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And the remarkable thing is that this was also true of the photos that the teenagers had taken themselves. Rather than make up their own minds about which of their own pictures they liked, teens deferred to the opinions of their peers. So, you know, in some ways, this study is confirming what we’ve known – peer pressure matters a lot, especially when you’re 14.

GREENE: And probably when you’re older, too.


VEDANTAM: That’s right.

Now, please don’t interpret my mention of this study as an argument that social media is always bad. It’s not. Just like every other tool, it’s a beneficial thing when used and appreciated properly. But it does bring up a few things to consider carefully:

You may not be as independent as you think you are. While many Americans place a high value on personal freedom (“no one can tell me what to think or do”) this study suggests that, while I may think I’m driving the bus, I’m actually just following the herd.

This leads us to an important question. What if the herd is wrong? Not just about whether a picture of your cat is really cool, or which mid-size sedan is a good buy, but about fundamentally important issues, questions, goals, and values?

We need a way to find “true north.” Sometimes we’re convinced that we’re facing the right direction, only to find that we’re wrong when we check a compass (or Google Maps for the non-wilderness types). Along the same lines, when it comes to determining what is true, good, and beautiful, we need something more than our internal hunches to help us get our bearings. We need something outside of us that will point us unfailingly in the right direction. And that’s where the Bible comes in. Because that’s where God speaks to us. His vision and judgment are always completely sound, and his intention for his people is always good in the end. Always.

Are you consistently listening to the most important voice? If you’re like most of us, you’re on social media a lot. And while that doesn’t always mean you’re listening to the wrong voice(s) (sometimes there’s wisdom in the herd), it does mean that its constant barrage can overwhelm everything else. The merely occasional dip into biblical truth can easily get drowned out, but if we’re consistently hearing God’s voice—by reading the Bible ourselves, hearing it taught at church, and being around other people who speak it into our lives and live it out in front of us—we’re much more likely to find and maintain the proper course.


*Here’s a quote from another article I read that goes into this reaction a bit more: 

Each time we receive a notification or a “like” on social media, an area of our brain called the nucleus accumbens lights up to give us a sense of gratification which goes a long way to explain why social media is so appealing and why it can become all-consuming. The danger, explains Michael, is that people are opting for this online gratification at the expense of the real world.

“Researchers have said the internet gives us more of a dopamine kick than having chocolate, than having sex, than achieving high results, than winning a medal, these things we used to strive for that were so important to us a society,” she says.

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