Let’s Turn a Sad Confirmation about Adolescent Brain Research on Social Media into 4 Serious Call-outs
“Our study shows that teens who report high levels of time spent on social media are more likely to report internalizing problems a year later. We cannot conclude that social media causes mental health problems, but we do think that less time on social media may be better for teens’ health.” Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School.
Until recently, I didn’t know that a new field of social media psychology has come into existence in the past 10 to 15 years. Do you? This early research focuses on the consequences of social media dependence and its affect on our children’s future. Now that we know, what can we do about it?
“What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence, but how the constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood.” Jean Twenge, psychologist.
Our reality is that nearly 95 percent of teens in the U.S. have access to a smartphone and almost 75 percent have at least one social media account, exposing them to both potential benefits and unpredictable risks. These platforms are open-ended to connect with peers, information and resources but also run the risk of cyber bullying and other overt digital aggression.
Just think, it has been only about 20 years since the internet revolution began invading so many economic, social, personal and psychological levels. Because it is so recent, there hasn’t been enough time to study the effects of this social disruption and experimentation. For many teenagers, it’s the only world through which they have passed into maturation. The results are now under evaluation and some are worrisome.
The research on social media’s effects on understanding the different parts of the brain are still in the early stages, and there’s still a lot of progress to be made. More than ever, it’s increasingly important to see the brain in action, set limitations and communicate openly with parents and teens about social media use.
How does the adolescent brain processes information differently from an adult brain?
Teenagers undergo 7 intense years of dramatic physical and emotional changes, and can be rightfully described as intelligent, fast learners, impulsive, anti-rules, contradictory, with a high tolerance to risk-taking and loyalty to peer following. Their actions are guided more by the emotional and reactive amygdala and less by the thoughtful, logical frontal cortex that means the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still connecting and not always at the same rate…they feel more than the think.
In fact, it’s stated that fully fledged deductive reasoning doesn’t develop until the mid-20’s. Even then, for some, there may be uncertainty.
But, at least, the good news is that proper scientific research is now starting to examine the context and content surrounding social media use and how combinations of different stimuli can trigger different reactions.
The rumors have come home to roost that long-term social media exposes the brain to certain adaptive behaviors.
Here are two examples of ongoing research into how social media affects the brain’s functions in adolescents:
A. One study (2019) showed the connection to the individual’s reward system. Using MRI technology, researchers noted that the brains of adolescents while browsing Instagram, showed greater activity in neural regions implicated in “reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention” especially if they had many “likes” versus a few. This is a worrisome feature of activating the brain’s reward system capable of abuse similar to gambling or narcotic drugs.
The same study noted connection to the brain’s sensory, decision-making and emotional processing areas. Certain areas reacted noticeably when teenagers felt excluded from online groups, chats, or events. This correlates with the teenagers’ pressure to belong to peer groups versus bullying or ostracism.
B. JAMA Psychiatry (September 11, 2019) outlined two types of behaviors with greater risk for mental health issues:
1. Internalizing behavior that involves social withdrawal, difficulty coping with anxiety or depression or directing feelings inward
2. Externalizing behavior includes aggression, acting out, disobeying or other observable behaviors.
In fact, an increase of as little as one hour of social media interaction from normal levels would result in a measurable increase in depression. (original investigation published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics July 15, 2019)
“We found an association between social media and depression in adolescence,” reads the report. “Based on the upward social comparison, it may be that repeated exposure to idealized images lowers adolescents’ self-esteem, triggers depression, and enhances depression over time.
Social Media is still a journey into the great unknown and young people must not pay the biggest crisis of loss of individual identity ... “I don’t know who I am. I don’t belong here.”
After years and years of social media immersion, teenagers must not be on the front line, struggling to assume adult roles without their own meaningful existence. What happens if these internal and external feelings are not addressed or re-mediated promptly enough? What happens if feelings of exclusion remain unresolved?
Teenagers are the most vulnerable victims of depression.
Their self-perception seriously undermines their development if depressed without self-confidence. Their self-concept may suffer academically, psycho-socially and even cognitively about what they believe they can or cannot do. Depressed behavior can turn to substance abuse, poor interpersonal relationships and even mortality ... “why should I bother living? Who cares?”
This is highly relevant and important CALL-OUT!
Now that science confirms the re-patterning of adolescent brains, keep researching and offering solutions to protect our teens and advice to parents.
Now that we know more, as responsible adults, we must take action to set reasonable boundaries, maintain an offline / offline balance and intervene when symptoms appear. It is mandatory to make this research as mainstream as possible so we can start to develop preventive measures. Here are 4 specific actions:
1. Do documentaries about how the brain interacts with social media that teens can understand as curriculum.
2. Find experts to engage on TV shows to discuss this topic. Get parents asking questions to popular show hosts about their kids’ futures versus fashions and wine-drinking secrets.
3. Have community workshops with practical advice to help teens change their online habits. Engage in discussions about the value and how to protect the process of a personal timeline. Provide offline activities.
4. Improve the health care system to recognize social media disorders as medical problems and be better suited in providing more services for teenagers in identifying problems and offering counselling and other solutions.
Certainly, as parents we must advocate for our teenagers because we have to trust their maturation into the next generation. What kind of questions would you ask? Do you hope that scientific research will help to find better solutions? What bothers you about the teenage sub-culture?
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