Social Media and the Adolescent Brain
According to an NPR article published on February 16, 2023, between the years 2009 and 2019, depression rates doubled for all teens. Please note that the article reminds readers “that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The article came on the heels of Mitch Prinstein, the Chief Science Officer at the American Psychological Association, delivering a 22-page testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, in which he stated, “Our brains, our bodies, and our society have been evolving together to shape human development for millennia.…Within the last 20 years, the advent of portable technology and social media platforms [have been] changing what took 60,000 years to evolve.”
The NPR article offers 10 useful takeaways for parents regarding the use of social media and the impacts it may be having on the mental health crisis. I have taken the liberty to share them with you here, along with the link to NPR’s original article.
1. Social interaction is key to every child's growth and development.
Humans are social creatures, and we learn through social interaction. Prinstein stated, "Numerous studies have revealed that children's interactions with peers have enduring effects on their occupational status, salary, relationship success, emotional development, mental health, and even on physical health and mortality over 40 years later. These effects are stronger than the effects of children's IQ, socioeconomic status, and educational attainment."
This helps explain why social media platforms have grown so big in a relatively short period of time. But is the kind of social interaction they offer healthy.
2. Social media platforms often traffic in the wrong kind of social interaction.
What's the right kind, you ask? According to Prinstein, it's interactions and relationship-building "characterized by support, emotional intimacy, disclosure, positive regard, reliable alliance (e.g., 'having each other's backs') and trust."
The problem is, social media platforms often (though not always) emphasize metrics over the humans behind the "likes" and "followers," which can lead teens to simply post things about themselves, true or not, that they hope will draw the most attention. And these cycles, Prinstein warned, "create the exact opposite qualities needed for successful and adaptive relationships (i.e., [they are] disingenuous, anonymous, depersonalized). In other words, social media offers the 'empty calories of social interaction,' that appear to help satiate our biological and psychological needs, but do not contain any of the healthy ingredients necessary to reap benefits." In fact, research has found that social media can actually make some teens feel lonelier.
3. It's not all bad.
The APA's chief science officer also made clear that social media and the study of it are both too young to arrive at many conclusions with absolute certainty. In fact, when used properly, social media can feed teens' need for social connection in healthy ways. What's more, Prinstein pointed out, for many marginalized teens, "digital platforms provide an important space for self-discovery and expression" and can help them forge meaningful relationships that may buffer and protect them from the effects of stress.
4. Adolescence is a "developmentally vulnerable period" when teens crave social rewards, but don't have the ability to restrain themselves.
That's because, as children enter puberty, the areas of the brain "associated with our craving for 'social rewards,' such as visibility, attention, and positive feedback from peers" tend to develop well before the bits of the brain "involved in our ability to inhibit our behavior, and resist temptations," Prinstein said. Social media platforms that reward teens with "likes" and new "followers" can trigger and feed that craving.
5. "Likes" can make bad behavior look good.
Hollywood has long grappled with groups of parents who worry that violent or overly sexualized movies can have a negative effect on teen behavior. Well, similar fears about teens witnessing bad behavior on social media might be well-founded. But it's complicated.
"Research examining adolescents' brains while on a simulated social media site, for example, revealed that when exposed to illegal, dangerous imagery, activation of the prefrontal cortex was observed suggesting healthy inhibition towards maladaptive behaviors," Prinstein told lawmakers.
So, that's good. The prefrontal cortex helps us make smart (and safe) decisions. Hooray for the prefrontal cortex! Here's the problem.
When teens viewed these same illegal and/or dangerous behaviors on social media alongside icons suggesting the negative content had been "liked" by others, the part of the brain that keeps us safe stopped working as well, Prinstein said, "suggesting that the 'likes' may reduce youths' inhibition (i.e., perhaps increasing their proclivity) toward dangerous and illegal behavior." In other words, bad behavior feels bad — until other people start liking it.
6. Social media can also make "psychologically disordered behavior" look good.
Prinstein spoke specifically about websites or online accounts that promote disordered-eating behaviors and nonsuicidal self-injury, like self-cutting.
"Research indicates that this content has proliferated on social media sites, not only depicting these behaviors, but teaching young people how to engage in [them], how to conceal these behaviors from adults, actively encouraging users to engage in these behaviors, and socially sanctioning those who express a desire for less risky behavior."
7. Extreme social media use can look a lot like addiction.
"Regions of the brain activated by social-media-use overlap considerably with the regions involved in addictions to illegal and dangerous substances," Prinstein told lawmakers.
He cited a litany of research that says excessive social media use in teens often manifests some of the same symptoms of more traditional addictions, in part because teen brains just don't have the kind of self-control toolbox that adults do.
8. The threat of online bullying is real.
Prinstein warned lawmakers that "victimization, harassment, and discrimination against racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities is frequent online and often targeted at young people. LGBTQ+ youth experience a heightened level of bullying, threats, and self-harm on social media." And online bullying can take a terrible physical toll, Prinstein said: "Brain scans of adults and youths reveal that online harassment activates the same regions of the brain that respond to physical pain and trigger a cascade of reactions that replicate physical assault and create physical and mental health damage."
9. It's hard not to compare yourself to what you see in social media.
Even adults feel it. We go onto social media sites and compare ourselves to everyone else out there, from the sunsets in our vacation pics to our waistlines – but especially our waistlines and how we look, or feel we should look, based on who's getting "likes" and who's not. For teens, the impacts of such comparisons can be amplified.
"Psychological science demonstrates that exposure to this online content is associated with lower self-image and distorted body perceptions among young people. This exposure creates strong risk factors for eating disorders, unhealthy weight-management behaviors, and depression," Prinstein testified.
10. Sleep is more important than those "likes."
Research suggests more than half of adolescents are on screens right before bedtime, and that can keep them from getting the sleep they need. Not only is poor sleep linked to all sorts of downsides, including poor mental health symptoms, poor performance in school and trouble regulating stress, Prinstein said, but "inconsistent sleep schedules are associated with changes in structural brain development in adolescent years. In other words, youths' preoccupation with technology and social media may deleteriously affect the size of their brains."