When Did You Start Caring What Other People Thought?S

Brain scans of teenage girls suggest something likely to hit home for many women — as they get older, they may have more emotional investment in how other people see them.

In the study, girls were asked to look at photographs of other teens and gauge how likely those teens were to want to chat with them online. The older the subjects were, the more brain activity they showed in "circuitry that processes social emotion." The same effect was not observed in boys. Study author Amanda Pine says that during adolescence, a "time of heightened sensitivity to interpersonal stress and peers' perceptions, girls are becoming increasingly preoccupied with how individual peers view them."

It's worth noting that the "circuitry" the scientists describe is associated with approaching people, rather than withdrawing from them in fear. So the fact that brain activity in this region seems to increase over time isn't necessarily a negative thing. However, many of us can probably remember a time before we were conscious of what others thought of us, and, particularly in times of "interpersonal stress," it's hard not to miss that innocence.

While I'm not sure I can pinpoint the instant when I started caring about other people's opinions, I do remember a watershed moment. I went to day camp at a university as a kid, and one of our "activities" was participating in child psychology experiments. I think I was about nine when I had to fill out a questionnaire with this item: "Do you think you have enough friends?" Enough friends, I thought? What? I hadn't really considered them in terms of sheer number before, but now that I've thought about it, no! There were probably some people who had more than me, so clearly I didn't have enough. I've heard other women talk about the dawn of negative body image, or the year they realized wildlife T-shirts weren't "cool" — and a close male friend of mine used to lament the day, freshman year of high school, when he understood he was a dork. Most of us do grow into an adult self-concept that exists independent of what other people think — but we can never return to a time when we were totally oblivious.

I'm still kind of mad about that particular questionnaire, but the truth is, we can't really protect kids from caring about how other kids see them. This caring has some good effects — like the development of empathy, and the realization that you shouldn't open the birthday girl's presents at her party (yeah, I did this). At the same time, it would be nice if understanding the process behind teens' increase in "social emotion" could help us mitigate it somehow, by teaching them that just because they think about other people's perception doesn't mean they have to act on them — and by remembering this ourselves.

Brain Emotion Circuit Sparks As Teen Girls Size Up Peers [Science Daily]