A small new study suggests conformity can feel as good as eating chocolate or winning money.
Teenage girl texting
Credit: Mark Mawson/Getty Images

When you were in middle school and high school, you probably spent a fair amount of time trying to decipher what your peers thought was cool. But today, peer pressure can be a little more quantifiable. As if being a teen weren’t hard enough, now there’s hard evidence available on what peers are thinking: likes and reactions on social media. Each like on Facebook or double-tap on Instagram acts as a “quantifiable form of social endorsement,” UCLA researchers say. And, according to their new study, teens are more likely to conform to their peers as their brains react to these endorsements.

For the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers scanned the brains of 32 teenagers (ages 13 to 18) while they were using a photo-sharing app similar to Instagram, which was created for the study. The participants sat at a computer for 12 minutes while hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging system (fMRI). They looked at 148 photographs, including a mix of their own photos, as well as photos that were deemed “neutral,” showing food and friends, and those classified as “risky,” which depicted topics like cigarettes and alcohol. Each photo showed a number of likes alongside it, too. Researchers told the participants that these likes came from other teenagers participating in the study (After the study, it was disclosed that these numbers were arbitrarily assigned by the researchers themselves). A teen could choose to “like” or “skip” each photo that was shown on screen.

The fMRIs showed that when a teen saw a large number of likes, there was increased activation in the nucleus accumbens—the part of the brain that controls feelings of being rewarded, socially accepted, or receiving positive attention. According to researchers, this part of the brain is also activated when eating chocolate or winning money.

But seeing peer opinions quantified through large numbers of likes didn’t only affect a teen’s self-image. Researchers found that teens were more likely to “like” a photo if it had supposedly been endorsed by many of the other participants. Teens also skipped a photo that had a low “like” count.

“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,” Mirella Dapretto, study senior author, said in a statement. “We should expect the effect would be magnified in real life, when teens are looking at likes by people who are important to them.”

Though peer pressure is nothing new, parents might want to take note that social media makes it easier for teens today to be persuaded by their friends’ behavior and opinions—good or bad—since this data is now unambiguously delivered to them.

“If your teen’s friends are displaying positive behavior, then it’s fabulous that your teen will see that behavior and be influenced by it,” Lauren Sherman, lead author, said in a statement. “It’s important for parents to be aware of who their teens interact with online and what these friends and acquaintances are posting and liking. In addition, teens’ self-identity is influenced by the opinions of others, as earlier studies have shown. Our data certainly seem to reflect that as well.”

Feel like your child’s falling in with the wrong crowd, either on social media or in real life? Here, nine bad influences on your child, and how to deal.