Neural Sensitivity Influences Social Well-Being in Youth During COVID-19

Researchers have found that the strength of young people’s brain responses to social rewards influenced their feelings of social satisfaction and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period with limited in-person interactions. Adolescents aged 10 to 17 whose brains are highly sensitive to social rewards felt lonelier when they had fewer in-person and virtual interactions than those whose brains are less sensitive to social rewards. Additionally, highly sensitive youth felt lonelier when they increased their passive use of social media, meaning they were scrolling through social media without posting or commenting. This finding suggests that observing the social lives of others without participating can be particularly negative for this group. Conversely, less sensitive adolescents did not feel as lonely with more frequent passive use of social media, indicating that simply viewing others’ social activities might be beneficial for them.

This research was supported by the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and the National Institute of Mental Health.

What were the researchers studying and why?

Middle childhood and adolescence are critical periods marked by significant brain changes and shifts in social needs. During this time, youth begin to rely more on friends than caregivers, making them more sensitive to peer acceptance or rejection. Unmet social needs can increase the risks of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, which the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated.

The brain's reward system, which responds to positive social interactions, plays a key role in social behavior. Differences in this neural reward sensitivity can explain variations in social experiences and outcomes among youth. The social isolation caused by the pandemic provided a unique opportunity to study how these differences affect young people, with some managing well through virtual interactions while others struggled without in-person connections. This study aimed to understand how social reward sensitivity influences loneliness and social dissatisfaction during such disruptions.

How did the researchers conduct the study?

Starting in May 2020, researchers conducted three monthly surveys with 76 youth aged 10 to 17 and their parents about social behavior and well-being during the pandemic. Surveys included questions about recent and pre-pandemic social interactions, passive social media use, loneliness, and social satisfaction.

A subset of these participants also underwent brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess their neural sensitivity to social rewards.

What did the study results show?

Key findings reveal that youth with high neural sensitivity to social rewards—those whose brains respond more strongly to social interactions—felt lonelier and more dissatisfied when in-person and virtual interactions were reduced, compared to youth with lower neural responses. Additionally, highly sensitive youth felt lonelier as their passive use of social media (e.g., browsing without direct interaction) increased. Conversely, youth with lower neural sensitivity found that their social satisfaction improved through more frequent passive social media use.

This suggests that young people with higher sensitivity to social rewards are more negatively impacted by reduced face-to-face contact, while those with lower sensitivity can maintain their social well-being through passive social media use. Simply observing others' social lives without interacting might be beneficial for them. These findings highlight the importance of distinguishing between passive and active social experiences, as they affect loneliness differently based on brain sensitivity to social rewards.

What is the final takeaway?

The study challenges the assumption that increased social media use always harms mental health, showing that the context and individual neural responses matter. The study's outcomes highlight the importance of understanding individual differences in neural sensitivity when addressing youth mental health, especially during times of significant social disruption. The findings may inform strategies to better support young people’s social and emotional well-being in the face of challenges like a global pandemic.

Dziura SL, McNaughton KA, Giacobbe E, Yarger HA, Hickey AC, Shariq D, Redcay E. Neural sensitivity to social reward predicts links between social behavior and loneliness in youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dev Psychobiol. 2023 Sep;65(6):e22413. doi: 10.1002/dev.22413. PMID: 37607890; PMCID: PMC10454977