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.

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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