Social Media: Protecting the Mental Health of Young Teens

Between ages 12-14 the brain undergoes a massive remodelling project. Teens experience significant neurological and psychological changes to prepare for an independent adulthood.

SENSITIVITY TO SOCIAL FEEDBACK:Changes in the early adolescent brain make young teens uniquely sensitive to and stressed by their social world. As parents we often observe our teens to experience higher highs and lower lows.

POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE IMPACTS ON THE BRAIN: Many highly regarded scientists are concerned that our brains did not evolve for non-stop interactivity. Multi-tasking has lingering cognitive costs. Heavy Internet use renders our thinking more superficial and less rigorous (Gazzaley).

On the other hand, Harvard’s Steven Pinker argues that the Internet makes us smarter and technology scholar Cathy Davidson believes multitasking might be creating rich new cognitive maps. The Internet may also enhance creativity in music and graphic arts, in particular (Divecha, 2014).

CHRONICALLY DISTRACTED KIDS: Distraction has become a norm.Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, refers to the ‘shredding of our attention.’

ATTENTION MANIPULATED: ‘Product designers play your psychological vulnerabilities against you in the race to grab your attention.’(Harris)

PARTIAL ATTENTION IS A STRESSOR: Continuous partial attention, or paying a little bit of attention to a lot of stimuli, mimics an ongoing state of crisis for the brain. Breathing can become more shallow and the mind hyper-alert. In large doses, time spent online can leave us and our children feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated, and powerless (Linda Stone).

POOR SENSE OF TIME: The ability to manage time dips between the ages of 12-14. Our children easily lose all sense of time when online.

IMPACT ON MOOD: Twenge’s research findings are simple: Teens who spend more time on on-screen activities are more likely to be unhappy and teens who spend more time on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy. Several studies have found that Facebook use has been tied to higher loneliness and depression scores.

The spike in the amount of time teenagers spend on screens is a likely cause of the ongoing surge in depression, anxiety, and suicide that began shortly after smartphones and tablets became widespread among teenagers, around 2012.

Analysing all large scale, long-term scientific studies, demographer and psychologist Jean Twenge has clearly shown that American teens who spend more time online are more likely to have at least one outcome related to suicide, depression or making a suicide plan. Depression does not cause teens to spend more time online. There is truly a toxicity to screen time. Equally, a hypothetical shift in how openly we talk about depression can’t explain the largest mental health crisis we have ever seen.

HOW LONG IS TOO LONG? ‘The relationship is very clear and linear:  After a little more than an hour a day of time spent on a smartphone, their well-being begins to decrease. If we continue to resist the idea that technologies can be harmful, we rule out a better understanding of their toxicity and fail to understand how they are shaping us and our kids. We need this insight to adapt to social media in more healthy ways’ (Carter, 2018).

HIGHLIGHTING is the phenomenon of only sharing your moments of strength. Truth be told, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others when we are online and many of us struggle because we compare our authentic self/real life circumstances with the highlights shared by other people online. Repeated and frequent negative social comparisons can lead to low self-esteem, depression and anxiety over time.

FOMO (The Fear Of Missing Out) is a form of social anxiety you might feel when you think you are missing a connection, event, or opportunity online. Scientists have found that feeling left out has similar effects on the brain as physical pain, particularly for younger teens who are especially sensitive to their social world (Divecha, 2014). FOMO keeps many young people hooked to social media and unable to close their Instagram or Facebook accounts.

DOPAMINE: Every LIKE we receive gives us the feel good chemical DOPAMINE. Dopamine gets triggered every time we get a sign of being valued. It becomes very hard not to check your notifications! Some teens check their phones 80 times per day (Twenge).

Online content creates unrealistic expectations about happiness, body image, and more. It also creates many more opportunities for feeling left out. In the past, we generation x parents often didn’t know if someone else was having more fun without us. Today, kids are painfully aware of missing out (e.g. getting live coverage of a party they were not invited to) and thereby devalue whatever they are doing (even if they valued it beforehand) once faced with the unfavourable social comparison.

OBSESSED WITH BEING VALUED: On social media we can become a product and this can become an obsession. We are allowing others to attribute value to us. Likes, comments, shares are all part of the economy of attention and like a social currency online. How much attention we get determines our value. We are tying up our self-worth with what others think about us and quantifying it for everyone to see. We can become obsessed with this because it triggers our primitive need to belong (e.g. having to get that selfie just right, even if it means taking 300 pictures!) (Bailey Parnell, Ted Talk).