Does social media impact brain development for kids and adolescents?
Social media has become more popular than ever. Many kids are frequently online, which worries some parents, teachers, and clinicians. You may wonder, can social media impact brain development for kids and adolescents?
To be clear, social media can do great things! It allows us to connect with friends, learn about topics that interest us, find career opportunities, stay informed on news stories, and much more. However, there is a lot of speculation that it may have negative effects on cognitive development in younger kids and adolescents when used too frequently. Let’s explore the effects social media can have on kids, and what we can do to help encourage healthy brain development.
How often are kids using social media?
A reported 78% of 13 to 17-year-olds check their phones at least once per hour. Additionally, 35% of teens report using popular social media apps constantly throughout the day. Another study showed that between 2020 and 2022, social media use among teenagers increased by 17%.
Of course, plenty of adolescents and teens have healthy relationships with social media. In these cases, it is less likely that their cognition would suffer over the long term. From the statistics outlined above, we can infer that 65% of teens aren’t constantly checking social media throughout the day. And around 22% of teens check their phones less than once per hour. It seems that the common concern is that a significant percentage of adolescents may be over-using social media and that it may have negative cognitive impacts. Let’s break down the findings!
How might social media impact cognitive development?
We experience a dopamine release each time we get validation, attention, or excitement from a social media app. This means that every time you get likes or comments, you’ll likely want to go back for more. This can create an addiction to social media, and change the reward pathways in our brains. This can occur in people of all ages. However, for adolescents and kids, these pathways are being created at a critical time in development.
The “infinite scrolling” model of these apps denies our brain of any signals to stop what we’re doing. This can lead users scroll for hours without realizing it, which contributes to social media addiction. The never-ending feed also satisfies our brain’s desire for information. Too much information can actually inhibit our brain’s ability to experience boredom. This sounds good at first, but boredom is actually very useful for brain development, as it encourages us to problem solve.
Other research shows that adolescents who check social media habitually are more likely to be highly sensitive to social rewards and punishments. They may find that they emotionally depend upon validation from their peers. There is a possibility that this could make them more sensitive to peer pressure as well. Of course, social validation and wanting to get along with your peers is great. However, if a child never learn to validate themselves, they may struggle to become confident individuals.
Research suggests that because social media encourages us to switch our attention frequently, it may hurt our ability to maintain sustained attention. And through the dopamine release that social media provides, we are incentivized to look at our phones more frequently to see updates and notifications. This can affect attention span, as we may continuously interrupt a task to check our social media. When kids get into this habit at a young age, there are concerns that it could affect their attention spans as they grow up.
One study noted that 87% of teachers surveyed agreed that digital technology seems to have created an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”
Another aspect of social media use that causes concern is the subject matter involved. It’s possible that kids and adolescents will stumble across disturbing or inappropriate content that they are not yet mature enough to see. In some cases, this could cause trauma. We know it might sound a little dramatic, but hear us out. There have been cases of people experiencing PTSD after seeing a lot of violent content on social media. Of course, these are extreme cases and most people would not run into this kind of content regularly. However, it’s good to be aware of.
Social media can certainly provide positive and uplifting content. However, it can also cause users to compare themselves to the curated, seemingly perfect lives of strangers. Adolescents are just beginning to figure out who they are and develop their self-image, and comparing themselves in this way can be damaging to self-esteem.
How to counteract negative effects
Of course, it’s up to the adults in a child’s life how best to handle the risks of social media. However, there are some expert tips that may be helpful!
- Keep an open dialogue going with kids on how they use social media and their feelings around it.
- Let them know the risks. Kids are often more receptive to this information than many adults think.
- Encourage kids to check their time spent on social media in their phone’s settings. The number can often come as a surprise.
- Encourage kids to take a day off from social media regularly.
- Parents can create a technology agreement with their kids, i.e. only use social media for X hours per day.
Further research would help us understand more fully how social media impacts brain development. However, it’s clear that social media can have some potential unwanted side effects, especially for young people. Social media can do great things, but we should also take into account the risks of addiction, social reward, attention, trauma, and mental health. For clinicians, parents, and teachers, it’s helpful to know the benefits and risks of social media and how it may be affecting the cognitive health of kids.