5 Ways Social Media Affects Teen Mental Health

How social media impacts the developing teen brain

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It should come as no surprise that the pressure to be available 24/7 on social media is a very real challenge for today's teenagers. Aside from the fact that their grasp of and dependance on social media far exceeds that of many adults, they also are using social media at much greater rates too. In fact, a report by Common Sense Media found that 75 percent of American teenagers have social media profiles.

Meanwhile, one in five teens have a current Twitter account.

In fact, for the vast majority of teens, social media is a daily part of life. For instance, 51 percent of teens visit social networking sites on a daily basis, while 11 percent send or receive tweets at least once every day. Moreover, more than a third of teens visit their main social networking site several times a day, while one in four teens is a “heavy” social media user, which means they use at least two different types of social media every day, according to the report.

How Does the Teen Brain Respond to Social Media?

For many teens, social media can become almost addictive. In a study by researchers at the UCLA brain mapping center, they found that certain regions of teen brains became activated by "likes" on social media, sometimes causing them to want to use social media more.

During the study, researchers used an fMRI scanner to image the brains of 32 teenagers as they used a fictitious social media app resembling Instagram.

 The teenagers were shown more than 140 images where "likes" were believed to be from their peers. However, the likes were actually assigned by the research team.

As a result, the brain scans revealed that the nucleus accumbens, part of the brain's reward circuitry, was especially active when they saw a large number of likes on their own photos.

According to researchers, this area of the brain is the same region that responds when we see pictures of people we love or when we win money. What's more, researchers say that this reward region of the brain is particularly sensitive during the teen years, which could explain why teens are so drawn to social media.

In another part of the study, researchers could see a correlation between social media and peer influence. Participants in the study were shown both neutral photos and risky photos. What they found is that the type of image had no impact of the number of likes given by teens in the study. Instead, they were likely to hit "like" on the popular photos regardless of what they showed. Researchers believe this behavior shows that peers can have both a positive and negative influence on others while using social media.

Meanwhile, another study found that brains change as new things are learned. In this study, researchers found that the white matter in adult brains changed as they learned how to juggle. For instance, they took scans before they learned how to juggle and again three months later. What they found was a change in brain structure.

Consequently, researchers hypothesize that social media could be changing teen brains as they learn how to navigate the technology.

 They maintain that anytime you learn something, or even experience something, it is encoded in the brain. What this is actually doing to the teen brain is still unknown at this point.

What Impact Does Social Media Have on Mental Health?

Undoubtedly, social networking plays a vital role in broadening teen social connections and helping them learn valuable technical skills. But what impact is all of this social networking having on young teen minds? Most reports indicate that the impact can be significant.

Not only are teens' developing brains vulnerable to so much time online, but because they often have difficulty self-regulating their screen time, their risks can increase.

Additionally, they are more susceptible to peer pressure, cyberbullying and sexting—all activities involving digital communication—making navigating the online social world treacherous at times.

All in all, there are a number of health issues that develop as a result of too much time online. Here is an overview of the most common mental health-related issues teens can experience from too much social media use.

Depression

Researchers are just beginning to establish a link between depression and social media. While they have not actually discovered a cause and effect relationship between social media and depression, they have discovered that social media use can intensify the symptoms of depression, including a decrease in social activity and an increase in loneliness.

For instance, a study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that the use of multiple social media sites is more strongly associated with depression than the amount of time spent online. According to the study, people who used more than seven social media platforms had more than three times the risk of depression than people who used two or fewer sites.

What's more, several additional studies have shown that the prolonged use of social media may be related to the signs and symptoms of depression as well as low self-esteem, especially in children.

Anxiety

Teens often feel emotionally invested in their social media accounts. Not only do they feel pressure to respond quickly online, but they also feel pressure to have perfect photos and well-written posts, all of which can cause a great deal of anxiety. In fact, some studies have found that the larger a teen's social circle online the more anxiety they feel about keeping up with everything online.

What's more, it takes a lot of time and effort to keep up with the unspoken rules and culture of each social media platform. As a result, this puts additional pressure on teens, which can cause feelings of anxiety.

Additionally, if teens commit a faux pas online, this also can be an extreme source of anxiety. Many teens, especially girls, are prone to worry about what others might think of them and how they will respond when they see them next. Then factor in cyberbullying, slut-shaming, and other mean online behaviors and you can see why social media is a very real source of anxiety for many teens.

Sleep Deprivation

Sometimes teens spend so many hours on social media that they begin to lose valuable sleep. Consequently, this sleep loss can lead to moodiness, a drop in grades, and overeating, as well as exacerbate existing problems like depression, anxiety, and ADD.

In fact, one British study published in the Journal of Youth Studies surveyed 900 teens between the ages of 12 and 15 about their social media use and its impact on sleep. What they found was that one-fifth of the teens said they "almost always" wake up during the night and log in to social media. The study also revealed that girls were significantly more likely than boys to wake up and check social media on their phone.

In addition to reporting feeling tired all the time, they also reported being less happy on average than teens whose sleep was not disturbed by social media. What's more, teens need more sleep than adults do, so logging into social media in the middle of the night can be detrimental to their physical health as well. For instance, aside from feeling tired and irritable, lack of sleep can lower the immune system and make it more likely for a teen to get sick.

Envy

Jealousy and envy—while normal emotions—can wreak havoc on teen brains if they dwell on what someone else has possessed or has experienced, that they themselves have not. And because people tend to post only the positive things that they experience, or make light of the bad with funny little anecdotes, it can appear to the reader that other people lead more exciting lives than they do.

Unfortunately, what teens often do not realize is that people tend to only post their "highlight reel" on social media and often keep the mundane or difficult experiences off the Internet. As a result, another person's life may look perfect online, but offline they have struggles just like anyone else.

Still, it is easy for a teen to play the comparison game and start thinking that everyone is happier or better off than she is. As a result, this can feed into depression, loneliness, anger and a variety of other issues. What's more, envy, if not dealt with, often leads to bullying and mean behavior. In fact, many mean girls target others because they are jealous of the target's clothes, boyfriend, successes, or any number of other things.

Communication Issues

While social media is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family, it also is not the same as face-to-face communication. For instance, a teen cannot see a person's facial expressions or hear their tone of voice online. As a result, it is very easy for misunderstandings to occur, especially when people try to be funny or sarcastic online.

What's more, many teens spend so much time online checking statuses and likes that they forget to interact with the people right in front of them. For this reason, friendships and dating relationships can suffer when social media takes center stage in a person's life. As a result, teens risk having relationships that are not deep or authentic. Moreover, teens who place a priority on social media will often focus on the pictures they take that show how much fun they are having rather than actually focusing on having fun. The end result is that their friendships suffer.

A Word From Verywell

Because so much brain development takes place during the teen years, it is important that parents understand the impact that social media use can have on their kids. For this reason, it is important to establish guidelines for social media use. It's also important for families to have regular discussions on how to use social media responsibly and safely. When families navigate the world of social media together, a teen's online world becomes much more manageable.

Sources:

Sherman, Lauren E. "The Power of the Like in Adolescence," Association for Psychological Science, May 31, 2016. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797616645673

"Seeing Everyone Else's Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms," Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, October 2014. http://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/jscp.2014.33.8.701

"Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives," Common Sense Media, 2012. socialmediasociallife-final-061812.pdf

"Training induces changes in white matter architecture," U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2010. National Institute of Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2770457/

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