10 things you should know about how social media affects teen brains

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing 9-8-8 or by texting.

The statistics are sobering. In the past year, nearly 1 in 3 teenage girls said they had serious thoughts about suicide. One in five teenagers who identify as LGBTQ+ say they have attempted suicide during this time. Between 2009 and 2019, depression rates for all teenagers doubled. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. The question is: why now?

“Our brains, bodies, and society have evolved together for millennia to shape human development… In the last twenty years, the advent of wearable technology and social media platforms have transformed what took 60,000 years to develop Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association (APA), told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. “We’re just beginning to understand how this can impact youth development.”

Prinstein’s 22-page testimony, along with dozens of useful footnotes, provides much-needed clarity about the role social media can play in creating this teenage mental health crisis. For you busy parents, carers and educators out there, we’ve boiled it down to 10 useful insights:

1. Social interaction is key to every child’s growth and development.

Humans are social creatures and we learn through social interaction. In fact, Prinstein says, “Numerous studies have shown that children’s interactions with their peers have lasting effects on their professional status, salary, relationship success, emotional development, mental health, and even physical health and mortality beyond age 40 have later. These effects are stronger than the effects of children’s IQ, socioeconomic status and educational attainment.

This explains why social media platforms have grown so big in a relatively short period of time. But is the type of social interaction they offer healthy?

2. Social media platforms often use the wrong type of social interaction.

What’s the right kind you ask? According to Prinstein, they are interactions and relationship building “characterized by support, emotional intimacy, disclosure, positive regard, reliable alliance (e.g. ‘standing with one another’) and trust”.

The problem is that social media platforms often (though not always) emphasize metrics about the people behind the “likes” and “followers,” which can lead teens to simply post things about themselves, true or not , which they hope will attract the most attention. And these cycles, Prinstein warned, “create the very opposite qualities needed for successful and adaptive relationships (ie, insincere, anonymous, depersonalized). our biological and psychological needs, but lack the healthy ingredients necessary to reap benefits.”

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In fact, research has found that social media can actually make some teenagers lonelier

3. It’s not all bad.

APA’s Chief Science Officer clarified that social media and its exploration are too young to reach many conclusions with absolute certainty. In fact, when used properly, social media can provide a healthy way to meet teens’ need for social connection.

“Research suggests young people are making and maintaining friendships online. These relationships often provide an opportunity to interact with a more diverse group of peers than offline, and the relationships are close and meaningful, providing vital support for youth during times of stress.”

Additionally, Prinstein emphasized that “for many marginalized teens, digital platforms can provide an important space for self-discovery and expression” and can help them form meaningful relationships that can protect and protect them from the effects of stress.

4. Adolescence is a “developmentally vulnerable time” in which teens crave social rewards — without the ability to restrain themselves.

Because as children hit puberty, the areas of the brain “related to our desire for ‘social rewards’ such as visibility, attention, and positive feedback from peers” tend to develop long before the parts of the brain “at Our cravings involve our ability to suppress our behavior and resist temptation,” Prinstein said. Social media platforms that reward teens with “likes” and new “followers” can trigger and nurture this craving.

5. “Likes” can make bad behavior look good.

Hollywood has long grappled with groups of parents concerned that violent or overly sexualized films can have a negative impact on teen behavior. Well, similar fears that teenagers are witnessing bad behavior on social media might be justified. But it’s complicated. Look at this:

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For example, research examining the brains of adolescents while on a simulated social media site found that activation of the prefrontal cortex was observed when exposed to illegal, dangerous imagery, suggesting a 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.

Prinstein said that when teenagers saw the same illegal and/or dangerous behaviors on social media alongside symbols that suggested they were “liked” by others, the part of the brain that protects us also stopped working, “which suggests it.” suggests that ‘liking’ may reduce adolescents’ inhibitions about (ie, perhaps increase their inclination to) dangerous and illegal behavior.

In other words, bad behavior feels bad…until other people like it.

6. Social media can also make “mentally disturbed behavior” look good.

Prinstein spoke specifically about websites or accounts that promote eating disorders and non-suicidal self-harm, such as self-cutting.

“Research shows that this content has proliferated on social media sites and not only depicts these behaviors but teaches young people how to engage in everyone, how to hide these behaviors from adults, actively encourage users to engage in these engage in, and socially sanction, behaviors that express a desire for less risky behavior.”

7. Extreme social media use can look very addictive.

“The brain regions activated by social media use overlap significantly with the regions involved in addiction to illicit 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 teenage brains simply don’t have the kind of self-control toolkit 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 online is common and often targeted at young people. LGBTQ+ youth experience increased levels of bullying, threats and self-harm on social media. ”

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And online bullying can take a terrible physical toll, Prinstein said: “Brain scans of adults and adolescents show that online bullying activates the same regions of the brain that respond to physical pain, triggering a cascade of responses that repeat physical attacks and physical attacks.” and mental health damage.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Adolescents who report involvement in bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicidal behavior than adolescents who do not report involvement in bullying behavior.”

Earlier this month, a 14-year-old New Jersey girl took her own life after being attacked by classmates at school and video of the attack was posted on social media.

9. It’s hard not to compare yourself to what you see on social media.

Even adults feel it. We take to social media and compare ourselves to everyone else out there, from the sunsets on our vacation pics to our waists – but most importantly our waists and how we look or think we should look based on who ‘likes’ gets and who doesn’t. For teenagers, the impact of such comparisons can be amplified.

“Psychological science shows that exposure to this online content is associated with lower self-image and distorted body image 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 that more than half of teens are in front of the screen just before bed, and that can keep them from getting the sleep they need. Not only is poor sleep associated with all sorts of downsides, including poor mental health symptoms, poor school performance, and problems regulating stress, “inconsistent sleep schedules are associated with changes in structural brain development during puberty. In other words, young people’s exposure to technology and social media can be detrimental to the size of their brains,” Prinstein said.

Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson

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