Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Social Media and the Teen Brain – How to Make it Work for Them

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Social Media and the Teen Brain - How to Make it Work For Them

Teens and social media are a modern-day love story – mostly inseparable, and with plenty of ups, downs and drama. Social media is still relatively new, and there’s still a lot to learn. The more we can understand about social media and its effect on teens, the more we can help them manage it in ways that will enrich them and see them flourish into the happy, healthy adults they are all capable of being. 

In a groundbreaking study, published in the journal Psychological Science, teenagers had their brains scanned while they used social media. Thanks to some brilliant technology, and social media’s almost magical way of having teens be still for a while, there were some remarkable findings.

But first … the research.

The study involved 32 teenagers, aged 13-18. They were told they were going to be involved in a social network similar to Instagram, except smaller. The teens were shown 148 photos on a computer screen for 12 minutes, including 40 photos that had each submitted. While they did this, their brain activity was analysed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Each photo showed the number of likes it had received. What the teens didn’t know, was that the likes were actually put there by the researchers, not by online ‘friends’. (It’s okay – the researchers came clean at the end and told the teens that they were the ones who had decided on the number of likes, so there was no unnecessary heartache.)

Another part of the study involved teens looking at photos that were neutral (pictures of food and friends), and ‘risky’ (photos of cigarettes, alcohol, and teens in provocative clothing). The teens had to decide whether or not to click ‘like’ on the photos. This part of the study looked at the influence of peers on decision-making.

Teens and Social Media – What they found …

‘Likes’? Love ’em!’ – the teen brain.

When the teens saw growing numbers of ‘likes’ next to their photos, a part of the brain’s reward circuitry – the nucleus accumbens – lit up. This is the same brain circuitry that is switched on by eating chocolate and winning money. When we get something we want, the nucleus accumbens releases dopamine to reinforce the behaviour. Dopamine is the ‘I’ve gotta have it’ chemical. The release of dopamine feels so good, that we’re driven to keep doing whatever triggered it. For teens, the delicious hit of dopamine that happens with growing likes on a photo can be enough to encourage the chase for the next social-media feel-good. 

‘But my tribe. My tribe.’ – the teen human.

Regions of the brain known as the social brain, and regions linked to visual attention were also activated when the teens saw the flourishing likes on their photos. There is a good reason for this, and it’s to do with the mega-changes that happen in the brain during adolescence. An important developmental goal of adolescence is to gently move away from the family tribe (though it might not always feel that gentle!) and towards the peer tribe. Social media is thick with opportunities to strengthen peer connections and experiment with finding somewhere to belong, and people to belong there with.

Do I ‘like’ it? Well, what’s everyone else saying?

The researchers made another interesting finding. When the teens were deciding whether to ‘like’ a photo, they were heavily influenced by the number of likes that were already attached to the photo. Regardless of whether the photo was neutral, risky, or even their own photo, the teens were more likely to ‘like’ the photo if the likes were higher.

‘Teens react differently to information when they believe it has been endorsed by many or few of their peers, even if these peers are strangers.’ – Lauren Sherman, lead author, researcher in the Brain Mapping Center and the UCLA branch of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles.

What it all means for the real world …

Social media can play an important and healthy role in helping teens forge through adolescence, but there will be trouble spots to step around. These are a normal part of adolescence. They would have been there for us too, but just not in the form of social media. The key lies in awareness and information. (Doesn’t it always?) Understanding the developmental goals teens will be working towards, and the needs they will be driven to meet, will make the risks of social media easier to navigate and the benefits easier to embrace. 

  1. The need for connection.

    The adolescent brain is heavily wired to connect with peers. ‘Likes’ are more than a number – they are acceptance by the tribe, inclusion, validation. This isn’t about being easily lead or not having a mind of their own. It’s absolutely not about that. (Their tendency to question you and the world sometimes is proof that their capacity to think independently is flourishing beautifully.) It’s about experimenting with where they belong and where they fit into the world. And we all need to belong somewhere. Of course, there will likely always be a part of them that feels a warm, bundled sense of belonging at home, but this is about where they fit into the world – who they are, who they identify with and how they’re doing.

    How social media can help

    During adolescence, teens will generally be looking to create new friendships and deepen their connections with peers. The relationships teens make during adolescence can be wonderfully supportive of their transition towards adulthood. Research indicates that these relationships are a strong predictor of well-being and happiness throughout the lifespan.

    Social media makes it easier to maintain friendships and connect on terms and timing that work better for them. It also broadens the boundaries, widening the possibility of finding somewhere to belong. Teens who might otherwise feel isolated or alone can find like minds and have their experience nurtured and normalised. From an evolutionary perspective, people have always felt safest in groups. Social media expands the opportunities for teens to feel part of a group and feel safe enough to try new things, challenge the status quo, or establish their own identity.

    Helping Them to Stay Safe

    Whenever you can, give them space to have their relationships and learn what they can about people – the ones who feel good to have around and the ones to steer clear of. The most important thing is to stay connected with them. Teens won’t always want your advice, but when they need it, they really need it. If they feel disconnected, they will never tap into the wisdom you can provide. As much as you can, let the advice-giving be on their terms.

    There might be friends you don’t approve of, but go gently with your guidance. The more unsolicited ‘wisdom’ you give them about those friends, the more they will try to prove you wrong. When they hit adolescence, we have such limited control over who they spend time with – but we can have influence. The best way to do this is to be someone they actually want to come to – safe, non-judgemental, non-critical, warm and available. Knowing when to give advice and when to hold back will be easy sometimes, and at other times it will feel like walking uphill with a bag of bricks on your back. Teens are no different to the rest of us. Even the best advice will be ignored if it’s said in a way that’s hard to hear, or that makes them feel like idiots. 

  2. The Oh-So-Almighty Influence of Peers.

    The research confirms what we’ve long known about the heady persuasiveness of peers during adolescence. Teens are so strongly influenced by their friends. This influence isn’t necessarily something that comes from close relationships or from plenty of shared experience. Social media ‘friends’ have influence regardless of how well the teens actually know each other. Friends in real life are likely to have a lot more influence. 

    ‘In the study, this was a group of virtual strangers to them, and yet they were still responding to peer influence; their willingness to confirm manifested itself both at the brain level and in what they chose to like … We should expect the effect would be magnified in real life, when teens are looking at likes by people who are important to them.’ – Mirella Dapretto, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

    Again, this can be tracked back to the need for tribe and belonging. Tribes (groups) strengthen through solidarity. Feelings of connection and inclusion with a tribe strengthen by showing support for the status quo. 

    This is nothing new. There has always been a drive and a pressure for teens to conform. Even the strongest minded teen can be influenced by what their peers are doing. This doesn’t always mean going with the majority, but it generally means banding together with someone. Social media makes it easier to find these ‘someone’s’. Even for teens standing at the edges, going against the flow won’t feel as lonely or unsafe when there are others to share the ride. 

    How social media can help.

    In the same way that unhealthy behaviours can be contagious on social media, healthy, strengthening behaviours can also be caught. If their peers are engaging in positive, healthy behaviours, social media can make this more visible and there’s every chance that the teen can be influenced by watching this.

    Helping them stay safe.

    The difference with modern technology and the ‘liking’ phenomenon is that there is less need for judgement about what people might be thinking. In the past, what others were thinking was often a guessing game, particularly for teens who weren’t in the immediate circle. Online likes are different. There is less ambiguity. Numbers of likes make it easy to figure out what’s in, what’s out, and what someone ‘should’ be doing to identify with, or feel connected to, a group of people.

    Be aware of their need to feel a sense of ‘sameness’ with their peers, and if you can, support this, even if it feels a little different or unexpected. Peer pressure comes from all sorts of directions – the clothes they want to wear, the music they listen to, the way they wear their hair, the food they eat, their political views, the trends they follow.

    Peer pressure isn’t always harmful and in fact, it can be a wonderfully healthy thing. Some of the greatest moves forward for humanity have come from adolescents who questioned the way the world was doing things, and were able to influence their peers to stand with them (think peace protests, equality for women). The more you can support their need to connect with their peers, the more influence you’re likely to have when it’s time to encourage them to pull back from something that doesn’t feel right. 

  3. The drive towards risky behaviour. 

    When the teens in the study looked at the riskier photos, they had less activity in the areas of the brain associated with decision-making and cognitive control. These areas are like behaviour nannies – they handbrake certain behaviours and give the green light to others. When there is less activity in these areas, poor decisions and risky behaviour are more likely. 

    Again, this can be explained by the brain changes that happen with adolescence. Increased changes in the reward centres of the brain drive teens to seek the ‘high’ that comes with trying new things. This can also inspire courageous, creative way of experiencing life, which can be wonderful to watch. It will also drive them to seek new ways of seeing and being the world. There is an obvious downside to this, and that is that in the quest for that ‘novelty high’, they are vulnerable to putting themselves in risky and dangerous situations. 

    How social media can help.

    Social media can help them to find their ‘spark’ – the thing that will provide them with opportunities for a novelty high. They can watch what others are doing – those in their circle and not in their circle – and be inspired by that. Their spark might be a sport, an activity, a group, a different world view, or something completely unexpected that will let them challenge themselves in enriching, life-giving ways.

    But be careful …

    The sense of safety that can flourish in a group can also cause teens to do things that they might not do on their own – as in risky things. The opportunity to feel more connected to their tribe can be dizzyingly seductive, and can have them doing crazy things that seem out of character, and completely of out sensibility.

    If this happens, let them know that you understand why it feels important to them to be doing what they’re doing – their need to be with their friends, the lofty sense of safety when they do things in a group, the thrill that comes with taking risks. They have to know that you get it. Understanding doesn’t mean approving. It means meeting them where they are to increase your influence and your chances of being heard. Talk to them about the risks and if you have stories of when similar things have gone wrong, tell them. The challenge is to try to avoid them feeling shamed or judged. If they get a sense of anything like that, you’ll lose them – at least until the next time you chat. Of course, sometimes, it won’t matter how tenderly you talk, they might feel it anyway. If this happens, wait until things simmer down and try again. And breathe. Sometimes all you can do is breathe.

  4. They can explore the world and their place in it.

    During adolescence, teens have a greater capacity to start thinking about the world in interesting and different ways. They are finding new ways of being in the world and their questioning the status quo – social media will let them do this.

    How social media can help.

    Social media can give teens a voice and a presence that they might not otherwise know. Provided their online friendships are healthy ones, social media can give them a rich space to give and receive feedback as they experiment with the person they are growing up to be. 

    But be careful …

    Searching for new ways to see themselves and the world can lead teens to wonder who they actually are and where they fit in. This can make them vulnerable to criticism or judgement from the tiny minds and tiny hearts that inhabit the dusty corners of the internet.

    With everyone putting forward the best version of themselves, social media makes comparison almost unavoidable. This can lead to a crisis for teens who get drawn in to comparing their perfectly normal, everyday lives with the very edited, highly polished images people put forward under the guise of ‘everyday’. 

    Keeping Them Safe

    The key is to be available but not intrusive. Let go of control and go for influence. Whenever you can, give them the space experiment with who they are, and to air their opinions and views of the world even if they are wildly different to yours. The more you can show an acceptance of who they are and how they think (even if you don’t always agree with it), the more this will nurture their own self-acceptance. This will limit their need to find acceptance online, and to overexpose themselves on social media along the way.

And finally …

Social media can help teens to find support, comfort, and an outlet for their ideas, and creative exploration or the world. Give them the space to explore and experiment with a new way of being and a self that is separate from you, but try to stay close enough to keep them safe. The main thing is to let them take the lead. If it’s not harming them, let it go. This is the time not to sweat the small stuff – there will be plenty of big stuff that will be ripe for that. 

Their need for connection with peers can make it tough going for them sometimes, but it’s a really normal and important part of them moving through adolescence and becoming healthy, independent adults. The shift from childhood, through adolescence into adulthood is a long-term plan, and the path isn’t going to be straight. The greatest growth will often happen on the curves and the uphill climbs.

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3 Comments

Michele

It’s refreshing to read about the more positive side and a balanced viewpoint of social media/devices for kids since we mostly only hear negative reports, thank you!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Thanks Michele! Yes – there’s a lot that we hear about that can go wrong, but every generation has something that they need to adapt to. For our teens it’s social media, but it can definitely be a great thing if they (and we) learn the ins and outs.

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