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Do Social Media "Likes" Matter for Teens’ Well-Being?

What psychological science reveals about “likes” and adolescent development.

Key points

  • Social media “likes” are highly rewarding to teens for evolutionarily-driven reasons related to social belonging and status.
  • Research suggests that an over-investment in likes may be problematic for adolescents’ mental health.
  • Facebook/Instagram announced a new policy that gives users more control over likes.

“It's like I'm—I'm a brand…” (Julia, age 13)

“You’re definitely trying to promote yourself.” (Jane, age 14)

“To stay relevant, you have to—” (Julia)

“You have to work hard.” (Jane)

—Excerpts from This American Life, “Status Update,” Nov. 27, 2015

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Getting likes on social media feels good in the moment—but managing like counts can be a lot of work. For many years now, across research studies and media stories, adolescents have shared how stressful this can be. Finally, Facebook and Instagram users have gained some control: We now have the option to hide other people’s likes and to hide our like counts from others. Facebook stated that the goal was to “depressurize” the social media experience. Many psychology researchers, including myself, have acknowledged that this is a step in the right direction. But is it too little, too late?

Chasing likes: Why do adolescents care so much?

Adolescents often go to great lengths to get social media likes. Many teens and young adults learn to think of themselves as “brands.” And to promote their brands, some youth engage in what researchers call “deceptive like-seeking practices”—posting at “high-traffic” times, using filters to make themselves look more attractive, or even buying likes.

These behaviors may seem extreme to parents. But likes tap into key adolescent needs. All humans have an evolutionarily-driven desire to belong. And during adolescence, we are especially motivated to gain social status among our peers. Teens are highly attuned to social norms, and many youth will engage in risky or illegal behaviors to gain peer approval. For example, Drs. Laurence Steinberg, Jason Chein, and colleagues have found that when teens are playing a driving game, the mere presence of their friends (without any direct peer pressure) leads to riskier driving, along with heightened activation of the brain’s reward center. Adults don’t show these behavioral or brain patterns.

Source: mentatdgt/Pexels

These social drives are nothing new—they likely have an evolutionary basis related to reproductive strategies—but social media has dramatically changed the social landscape for today’s teens. My colleagues Drs. Jacqueline Nesi, Mitch Prinstein, and I have proposed a theoretical framework for how and why social media transforms adolescents’ interpersonal relationships: Adolescents now have 24/7 access to a broad audience of peers—and likes provide a clear, compelling, quantifiable, public, and ever-present indicator of peer approval.

In the first neuroimaging study of teens’ brain responses to social media, Lauren Sherman and colleagues found that when teens believed their photos had gotten more likes, they showed greater activation in the brain’s reward circuitry.

In other words, getting likes feels good, even at the neural level. This is especially true for teens, given their unique sensitivity to social rewards.

If getting likes feels good, why should we hide them?

“When they get more likes than me, I feel like a loser, ‘cause they are way cooler or way prettier than me, so they get more likes.”

–Teen girl in Singapore, interviewed for a research study in 2015 (Chua & Chang, 2016, p. 194)

Adolescents are highly attuned to like counts, both their peers’ and their own. For every adolescent whose like count is increasing, there’s another adolescent engaging in social comparison with those likes. This can generate stress and may increase the risk of mental health problems for some adolescents.

Recent studies by Dr. Hae Yeon Lee and colleagues found that teens who received fewer likes than their peers reported more negative emotions and thoughts about themselves. And youth who showed stronger negative reactions to low like counts were more likely to develop depressive symptoms over time.

So, will the new Facebook/Instagram policy improve adolescent mental health?

Source: cottonbro/Pexels

The new likes policy: A step in the right direction, but not a panacea

On May 26, 2021, Facebook made the following announcement:

“Starting today, we’re giving you the option to hide like counts on all posts in your feed. You’ll also have the option to hide like counts on your own posts, so others can’t see how many likes your posts get. This way, if you like, you can focus on the photos and videos being shared, instead of how many likes posts get.”

This is a long-awaited change that was first discussed by Facebook and psychologists in 2019. It’s an important step in the right direction. Now, for the first time, adolescents can choose to view their Instagram and Facebook feeds without seeing others’ like counts. For example, a teen can browse a friend’s vacation photos without being distracted by social comparison thoughts about the friend’s number of likes. Hiding like counts on their own posts may also reduce teens’ feelings of needing to constantly monitor their accounts.

But this is not a panacea. Because even if adolescents decide to opt in, they’ll still be shown their own like counts every time they check their apps.

Avinash Kumar/Unsplash
Source: Avinash Kumar/Unsplash

Why aren’t social media users being given the option to hide their own like counts from themselves? It’s simple: the bottom line. Social media is fueled by the attention economy: the more time a user spends on an app, the more money the tech company makes from ads. Likes = $: We keep posting and checking, hoping for that next dopamine hit from getting another like. And as Dr. Renee Engeln said in 2019 ( “We should never assume these for-profit social media companies are after improvements in our own mental health. They're not in the business of taking care of us."

Final thoughts

Of course, not all adolescents respond to social media in the same way. In future posts, I’ll discuss what we know about the role of gender and other aspects of identity in the effects of social media.

But anyone reading this post can take the likes-free challenge: Go to your Instagram and Facebook settings right now and opt-in to hide those likes. Then do your own psychology study: Track how you’re feeling after a day, a week … You just might like the way you feel.

More from Sophia Choukas-Bradley Ph.D.
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