Table of contents
- What do we mean by adolescence?
- Self-Referential Processing
- Purposes and Aims of Current Study
Time and time again, research has shown adolescence to be a time of great and dynamic change (Cripps and Zyromski, 2009; Blakemore and Mills, 2014), driven in part by changes in adolescent social relationships. Social interaction has been likened to food or water as a basic human need (Baumeister and Leary, 1995; Tomova, Tye, and, Saxe, 2019), but the growing influence of the peer group and a particularly strong vulnerability to social exclusion (Sebastian et al., 2010) suggests that learning to navigate social relationships is of critical importance during adolescence. Determining the components of social interaction that are crucial for adolescents to form and maintain meaningful relationships is vital in understanding how to support adolescents during this period of ‘storm and stress’ (Hall, 1904). Further, we must consider the way in which technological advances have changed the amount and types of social interaction necessary to fulfil our social needs. Such research is of particular interest in a time where many governments worldwide are issuing national lockdowns and restricting more typical methods of social interaction. One of the aims of the research presented here was to review current findings on the role of self-disclosure in fulfilling adolescent social needs, comparing online and offline interaction. A further aim was to identify specific brain areas related to self-referential processing, another important component of social cognition.
What do we mean by adolescence?
For all the research showing adolescence as a unique period of development (Kipke, 1999; Backes and Bonnie, 2019), the term itself is strangely poorly defined. The World Health Organisation (WHO, n.d.) defines it simply as the second decade of life (an idea seconded by the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology; Colman, 2015). Yet, the definition most often used in research is far less clear cut, adolescence is defined as starting at puberty and ending when an 'individual attains a stable, independent role in society' (Steinberg, 2010; also seen in Blakemore, 2018). This definition provides a vague end, rooted in highly non-specific social changes. Combined with the fact that the age of those reaching the typical markers of social stability and independence, such as marriage or parenthood, has been rising in recent years (Office for National Statistics, 2019), it is now generally accepted that a definition of adolescence ought to extend beyond the teenage years. For this reason, the following research chose Sawyer, Azzopardi, Wickremarathne, and Patton's (2018) definition of adolescence: ages 10 - 24.
Arguably, it is precisely the vague definition of adolescence that make this age group so interesting. The inability to pin adolescence down is partly due to the fact that adolescence is a time of great psychological and social change (Blakemore and Mills, 2014; Orben, Tomova, and Blakemore, 2020). Throughout adolescence, the opinions of the peer group take on more value as the individual develops their sense of self. The fact that adolescents spend twice as much time with their peers as compared to other adults shows this (Larson, Csikzentmihalyi, and Freeman, 1984). It is important we learn more about successful adolescent social development as there is a large body of research showing adolescence to bring a heightened vulnerability for mental health problems; peer rejection and social isolation may cause these (Jones et al., 2013; Kessler et al., 2005; Platt, Cohen-Kadosh, and Lau, 2013). The link between adolescent social fulfilment and their psychological well-being is also why it is so important to investigate how new technology and online communication impacts our social needs. 83% of adolescents in the UK aged 12 - 15 own a smartphone and, between 2015-2019, approximately 70% had a social media profile (OFCOM, 2020). It is vital we understand if technology is helping adolescents meet their social needs, and how.
‘Self-disclosure’ describes a process in which one individual reveals personal information to another (Pearce and Sharp, 1973; Ignatius and Kokkonen, 2007); it has previously been described as an important building block for intimate relationships (Chaikin and Derlega, 1976).
Some researchers view self-disclosure as a measurable trait, like personality. In a pioneering paper on the subject, Jourard (1971) described self-disclosure as a sign of a healthy personality. In response, several others (e.g. Cozby, 1973; Archer, 1979) attempted to relate self-disclosure to a separate aspect of personality, though they reported few consistent relationships. Conflicting findings were especially true of research into the relationship between neuroticism and self-disclosure (Stanley and Bownes, 1966; Ignatius and Kokkonen, 2007; Cunningham and Strassberg, 1981), despite the assumed association based on Jourard's (1971) original presumption that self-disclosure and mental health stability are related.
The role of gender in self-disclosure has been researched more thoroughly (Dindia, 2002). Current research suggests that women self-disclose more than men (Chelune, 1976; Dindia, 2002), although this too has been contested (Kobocow, McGuire, and Blau, 1983; Shapiro and Swensen, 1977). Despite the abundance of research in this area, it is still unclear as to why there might be gender differences in self-disclosure behaviour.
Self-disclosure is thought to help form and maintain social relationships as it builds a bond of trust between individuals (Altman and Taylor, 1973). A meta-analysis from Collins and Miller (1994) expanded on this, suggesting both that people who partake in self-disclosure tend to be more liked, and that people like those that self-disclose to them. The reciprocity of self-disclosure builds a relationship between individuals, though Cozby's (1972) research suggested that the relationship between self-disclosure and liking is curvilinear. The question here refers to whether this same relationship holds for online communication.
Modern advances in technology have changed how people communicate and these changes need to be factored into discussions of self-disclosure. Some studies suggest the added anonymity (Bermack, 1989; Lester, 1977) alongside the ability to engage in selective self-presentation (Walther, Slovacek, and Tidwell., 2001) increase self-disclosure. Others propose the lack of non-verbal cues in computer-mediated communication (CMC) may lead to decreased self-disclosure (Joinson, 2001; Cooper and Bowles, 1973). Similarly, while there is a consensus that self-disclosure online can still help to build trust within a relationship (Walther, 1996; Reingold, 1993), there are concerns that self-disclosure conducted via CMC is less fulfilling (Culnan and Markus, 1987).
The many approaches to research expose the complexities of self-disclosure, potentially explaining why the factors that affect self-disclosure and its full impact on social relationships are still largely unknown (Berg and Derlega, 1987).
Related to the idea of self-disclosure, is the concept of self-referential processing (SRP). This is the process by which we use knowledge of ourselves to interpret new information (Rogers, Kuiper and Kirker., 1977). Examples of SRP include identifying personal memories or attributing certain characteristics to oneself (Benoit, Gilbert, Volle, and Burgess, 2010). SRP has been emphasised as critical in social cognition also (Dinulescu, Alvi, Rosenfield, et al., 2021; Preston and de Waal, 2002), as the idea of the self is a social construction, and knowledge of the self aids in creating mental representations of others (Forgas and Williams, 2002).
Several neural structures have been identified for their association with SRP. A 2006 meta-analysis by Northoff, Heinzel, de Greck et al., provided evidence for the role of cortical midline structures, particularly the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) (also supported by Finlayson-Short, Davey and Harrison, 2020; D'Argembeau, Ruby, Collette, et al., 2007). Research into major depressive disorder, thought to be associated with increased SRP, also supports the idea that the cortical midline structures are responsible for SRP (Nejad, Fossati, and Lemogne, 2013). Other neural structures implicated for SRP include lateral posterior areas, such as the inferior parietal lobule and temporoparietal junction (TPJ) (Northoff et al., 2006).
Most research has used adult participants. Glisky and Marquine's (2009) research suggests that SRP may be impervious to age, but adolescence is a time of great biological developmental change. There is a clear interest in determining potential brain regions responsible for SRP in this younger age group.
Current research presents mixed findings on the role of self-disclosure and self-referential processing in the fulfilment of adolescent social needs. This has created a need for a systematic review of the literature and meta-analysis of neural data in this area.
Purposes and Aims of Current Study
The current study was conducted in two parts: a systematic review of current research into the role of self-disclosure in adolescent social relationships, and a meta-analysis to identify the brain regions associated with SRP in adolescents.
Our systematic review sought to answer two research questions: Q1: How is self-disclosure important for relationship-building in adolescence?; Q2: Is this affected differently by online communication as compared to offline communication?. The primary aim of this research was to learn the ways in which self-disclosure is important for building social relationships in adolescence and thus fulfilling adolescents' social needs. This involved identifying the appropriate recent literature and identifying key themes relating to factors that affect self-disclosure, and the impact it has on social relationships. From there, we aimed to compare the efficacy of online communication to offline interaction in the fulfilment of these social needs. We hypothesised that self-disclosure in social interactions in adolescence (aged 10-24 years) is affected differently by online communication as compared to offline communication.
For the second part of our research, we conducted a meta-analysis to answer the question: Q3: What brain regions are activated during self-referential processing tasks in adolescence?. Our hypothesis is that there will be specific brain areas for SRP in adolescence (again, ages 10-24), likely those highlighted by the previous research into SRP in adults. This includes the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), as well as lateral posterior areas, such as the inferior parietal lobule and temporoparietal junction (TPJ). The aim of the meta-analysis was to identify brain regions associated with SRP, to create a quantitative picture of social need fulfilment in adolescence as well.