Social media’s impact on teen mental health is a missing link

How social media and adolescents can affect their sense of self: a neuroscience-based study of problematic use of social media on adolescents in the Netherlands

The number of ‘likes’ and how long they have to wait before getting feedback are just two new ways that adolescents can measure their social approval through social media. Being able to constantly collect feedback from peers could make some people feel less good about themselves. Some researchers have proposed that digital innovations, such as games or social-media platforms including TikTok, might even impact adolescents’ development of a sense of self, how they perceive others’ opinions of them or what habits they develop around social-media use14,16,17.

I don’t want to say that intensive use is not concerning. We were able to identify groups based on what symptoms their users showed: 1) no symptoms, 2) at-risk users, and 3) problematic users. About 30% of kids in the Netherlands are in the middle at-risk group. The adolescents experience many problems with sleep, mental health and school. We can say from our research that the more symptoms of addiction that an adolescent has, the higher the probability of experiencing these issues. So, although the percentage of adolescents that show problematic use is low, when a few symptoms are present there is still reason for concern.

For other indicators of well-being, the findings were more nuanced. For example, in countries where intensive use was common, because the percentage of intensive users was high in the adolescent population, intensive users reported more life satisfaction than did non-intensive users. Life satisfaction for intensive users is less than for non-intensive users in countries where use is uncommon.

During that period, the students who reported checking their social media more regularly showed greater neural sensitivity in parts of the brain like the amygdala, Telzer said. Those who checked their social media less frequently saw less sensitivity in those areas on the fMRI.

Researchers can use methodologies from neuroscience or psychology to try to understand how young people interact with and experience online spaces. In some psychology studies, for instance, researchers give participants feedback from fictional participants, and assess changes to people’s sense of self-worth over time19. Other studies compare how participants’ opinions and actions are influenced by peers, as well as how they view others to judge them. In principle, such experimental paradigms could be used in combination with digital data sources to investigate how the use of social media and development interact to affect the fragility of young people’s sense of self and their self-worth.

A team of researchers from Telzer studied 169 sixth and seventh graders in North Carolina to find out how checking social media affected their development.

It is important not to worry too soon, she added. She added that the study couldn’t say for certain if the two are related or not.

Social media is filled with ways to get feedback from peers, whether it is through the excitement of a like on a post or criticism from a mean comment, said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, chief medical officer of BeMe Health and child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He wasn’t involved in the study.

Doing so can help young people connect more deeply in person, feel more present and “separate from the constant, often anxiety-provoking, influx of information about the world and other people’s lives,” she said.

She stated that families should ask teens if they are using social media in the way they want and if they are making changes if they want to get there.

She said there are ways to avoid the dangers of social media for young people who like to spend time online.

“It might be time to find those non-social media apps and digital experiences and rethink how much time you spend on platforms that aren’t leaving you feeling calm, refreshed, and in a better headspace,” Chaudhary said.

Depression, anxiety and suicidality have all sharply increased in adolescents over the past decade1. So, too, has the amount of time that young people spend online (see ‘Troubling trends’). Partly because of fears that there’s a link between these trends, governments around the world are under pressure to do more to regulate technology companies.

All of the arguments are understandable. In our view, the researchers have not explored how mental health can be related to social-media use, and how it can change with stages of development.

When participants were 11 or 12 years old, social-media use increased and their life satisfaction decreased as they got older. The same pattern occurred in participants who self-reported as male when they were 14 or 15 years old. These age ranges align with when young people go through puberty; on average, girls enter puberty earlier than boys7.

Several developmental-psychology studies have shown, for instance, that adolescents — particularly those in early to mid-adolescence — place increased importance on being able to interact with their peers, and on what their peers think of them12. Other studies suggest that although young children tend to view themselves positively, as they become adolescents, their ideas about themselves come to more closely align with what they perceive others to think of them13,14. More research shows that rejection or being excluded affects mood more for young people in the early to mid-century than for older people.

In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, most young people move from primary schools to secondary schools, where social networks are larger and more unstable, when they are 1118. Being able to access peers through communication pathways on social media — many of which are eminently available, highly public, permanent, asynchronous and lacking social cues, such as facial expressions and body language — could be especially impactful at this time9. The same is true when young people leave school for work or college. Social pressures might increase as young people become more independent in early and later adolescence.

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