10 things to know about how social media affects teens’ brains

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., 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 made clear, 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.

“Research suggests that young people form and maintain friendships online. These relationships often afford opportunities to interact with a more diverse peer group than offline, and the relationships are close and meaningful and provide important support to youth in times of stress.”

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 – without 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 parent groups 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. Check this out:

“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.

Prinstein said, when teens viewed these same illegal and/or dangerous behaviors on social media alongside icons suggesting they’d been “liked” by others, the part of the brain that keeps us safe stopped working as well, “suggesting that the ‘likes’ may reduce youths’ inhibition (i.e., perhaps increasing their proclivity) towards 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 sites or accounts that promote eating disordered 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 each, 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.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior.”

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

9. It’s hard not to compare yourself to what you see in social media.Even adults feel it. We go onto social media 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, “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,” Prinstein said.


Millennials’ Brains Are Wired To Be Immature, According To Research

A 2018 study published in an edition of The Lancet: Child & Adolescent Health could change the way we think about child development, adolescence, and millennials forever.

According to the research presented, you may be of legal age to buy a drink or rent a car when you turn 21, but your brain isn’t technically done growing up until you’re 25 years old.

Currently, when people refer to someone as an adolescent, most of us equate the term with being a teenager, i.e., anyone between the ages of 13 and 19, and while some also include the preteen or tween years, i.e., 9 through 12.

However, Professor Susan Sawyer of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and her team of fellow scientists know the definition of adolescence should be extended, beginning at the age of 10 and lasting all the way to 24.

RELATED: 10 Sure-Fire Ways To Spot An Emotionally Immature Adult

Given that the millennial generation is loosely defined as beginning with anyone born between the years of 1981 (or 1982) through 2004, this means that some of you, my millennial brothers and sisters, may in fact, still be stuck in your adolescence.

If you are a person in your early 20s, your reaction upon reading this is probably something along the lines of, “Man… I don’t think so. I’m hella grown!”

Whereas for those of us millennials who made it past our 20s and on into our 30s, not to mention our big brah and sis Gen-Xers (now in their late 30s through 40s) and those self-righteous Baby Boomers, the findings of this research are likely far from revelatory.

When I think about some of the nonsense I got myself into in my early 20s, all I know is that it’s not only a miracle I survived, it’s a miracle I didn’t wind up in jail — or worse… living back at home with my parents!

What is truly fascinating, however, is the reasoning behind this proposed change in definitions.

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The results of Sawyer’s study indicate that human brain development continues well into our 20s.

. And beyond that physiological date, it also turns out that as more people are staying in school longer on average in order to get advanced degrees, they are also holding off on many of the so-called milestones of life — such as a grown-up, such as getting married, becoming the head of a household, and having children — until much later in life.

Seldom have I ever read a piece of news that has made me feel so gosh darn good about my current lot in life.

As an unmarried, childless woman in her early 30s, it’s easy to feel like you’re falling behind the bell curve.

If a group of elite scientists is suddenly willing to stand up on behalf of me and everyone else in my generation to claim they have proof that I’m just as average as the rest of my slacking cohort and that our brains are simply wired this way, listen — I am ready, willing and eager to believe every single thing they have to say on the subject.

If millennials seem immature to you, the study also posits that this is because of the role social media takes in all of our lives these days.

RELATED: 6 Thinking Styles That Transform Your Brain

It’s not that millennials are less mature than any generation that has ever come before them, it’s that we’ve always been this way, but we couldn’t see it all so clearly before the onset of a culture in which our lives happen in an increasingly public way and are then shared across a variety of social networks.

Related Stories From YourTango:As the authors of the study wrote:

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