As children get older, they face a variety of social challenges that can have a substantial impact on their development into resilient adults. Some move through these problems effortlessly, developing adaptive traits, while others struggle with problems that may have a long-term impact on their mental health.

Consider the transfer from one school to another, this can be relatively easy for children who have no difficulty developing relationships but can be substantially more stressful for those who struggle with social interactions. Furthermore, there is variation in how these situations affect children. While rejection at a new school may cause more negative feelings, it can also be that these feelings fade more quickly for others. The question that arises is: how do these self-regulatory traits develop during childhood and when do the differences arise?

Self-regulation in the brain

To understand self-regulation, we can conduct experiments to see how the brain reacts to socially stressful situations like rejection, and especially how children moderate their reactions to these situations. The Social Network Aggression Task is an experiment designed for this issue. In this experiment, people are given positive or negative feedback, followed by being instructed to let the person who gave them the feedback listen to a noise with the freedom to determine the noise’s intensity. Intriguingly, research reveals that children who respond more strongly to negative feedback, evidenced by louder noise blasts, exhibit visible differences in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a brain region dedicated to self-control). Aside from having distinct aggressive responses, it is also clear that there is a different reaction over time during development. Middle childhood appears to be a key phase for demonstrating self-regulation abilities.

This does however not provide us with a comprehensive picture of who these children are, nor does it indicate whether this is simply applicable during rejection or whether it is a trait-specific effect on the children. That is ultimately what we hope to learn. Why do children exhibit such a wide range of self-regulation responses in our daily social interactions?

Capturing patterns throughout the day

Therefore, as part of my GUTS PhD project, we want to get a broader understanding of self-regulation. That is, we wish to quantify social interaction in everyday life. This is possible thanks to a relatively new method becoming increasingly popular in large-scale research: experience sampling. How are we going to accomplish this? We live in an online world, and while using a smartphone rarely is viewed positively, it may be quite beneficial in the context of this study. Participants are instructed to complete quick questionnaires on their phones throughout the day. This can range from questions about feelings to social interactions. We can then identify patterns of daily social experiences because it is questioned repeatedly throughout the day!

Ultimately, the GUTS consortium hopes to learn how children grow up in an increasingly complex society. In this study, we hope to learn how children cope with stressful situations like rejection, as well as minor but significant events like social pressure, by disentangling momentary experiences. Later, we will also include the brain in our research to see if the neural differences in activity that are discovered during experiments like the Social Network Aggression Task, can be linked to person-specific patterns of self-regulation in everyday life as well.


Photo by Sam Balye on Unsplash.