Social Media & The Reward Route

We all like rewards, don’t we? Growing up, we got rewarded for our good behaviour, school performance, etc. We were always elated when our teachers left those stars and smiley faces, inked in red. It seems like those stars have come out of the notebooks and reached our screens, modified as hearts, thumbs-ups, and applause on our social media apps. 

Did you know that our brain has a pathway, known as the reward circuitry, that’s in charge of providing a feeling of motivation, reward, and pleasure. Every time the reward pathway is triggered, the nucleus accumbens lights up. 

These days, hardly anything else lights up the nucleus accumbens in teenagers as much as social media does. A UCLA Brain Mapping Centre study noticed that certain regions activated by social media “likes,” with the brain’s reward centre becoming particularly operative. According to a report in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) is responsible for determining the rewards system. When social media users receive positive feedback (likes), their brains release dopamine receptors, facilitated in part by the VTA.

Researchers also suggest that this reward region plays an essential role in teenagers’ decision-making. Social media activates the reward circuit at rapid and frequent rates, making teenagers more susceptible to it. This activation results in pleasure, which can often develop into addiction and become a source of anxiety and stress. 

The internet, smartphones, and social media penetration is constantly increasing, more so after the pandemic. Social media is a great platform to showcase one’s skill, connect with peers, trace relevant information, and discover opportunities. So, rewards can also be great motivations. Make sure you choose the right ones for your brain.

Contributed by Ayushee Chaudhary. This article originally appeared in the Social Media edition of The Plus magazine. Read here.