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

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.

3 Comments

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.

Reply
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!

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
This error message is only visible to WordPress admins
Error: Access Token is not valid or has expired. Feed will not update.

Pin It on Pinterest