What do teenagers really need to know about social-media use? A pedagogical look at Maartje Boer’s 22-page testimony
Does frequent engagement with social-media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok affect the well-being of adolescents? Maartje Boer, who studies problematic social-media use and is based at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, says that for many teenagers, social media might not be as harmful as some adults fear.
I don’t want to say that intensive use is not concerning at all. In another study, we distinguished between three groups: normative users, who show one or no symptoms; at-risk users, who show 2–5 addiction symptoms; and problematic users, who show 6–9 symptoms2. The majority of kids in the Netherlands are in the middle at-risk group. We see that these adolescents have more problems with school and sleep. 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.
The findings were more nuanced for other indicators. In countries where intensive use is common, intensive users have more life satisfaction than do non-intensive users. In countries where intensive use was uncommon, intensive users report less life satisfaction than do non-intensive users.
The statistics are sobering. In the past year, nearly 1 in 3 teen girls reports seriously considering suicide. One in 5 teens who are identified as LGBTQ+ try to kill themselves. Depression rates for teens doubled between 2009 and 2019. That was before the COVID-19 PAIN. Why now, the question is posed.
Our brains, our bodies, and society have been evolving together for thousands of years. Within the last twenty years, the advent of portable technology and social media platforms is changing what took 60,000 years to evolve,” Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer at the American Psychological Association (APA), told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. “We are just beginning to understand how this may impact youth development.”
There is much needed clarity about the role social media might play in contributing to the teen mental health crisis, as a result of Prinstein’s 22-page testimony. For you busy parents, caregivers and educators out there, we’ve distilled it down to 10 useful takeaways:
Social interaction is an essential part of the learning process for humans. In fact, said Prinstein, “numerous studies have revealed that children’s interactions with peers have enduring effects on their occupational status, salary, relationship success, emotional development, mental health, and even on physical health and mortality over 40 years later. These effects are more powerful than those of a child’s IQ, level of education and status in the community.
What’s the right kind, you ask? According to Prinstein, it’s interactions and relationship-building “characterized by support, emotional intimacy, disclosure, positive regard, reliable alliance (e.g., ‘having each other’s backs’), and trust.”
Research suggests that young people form and maintain friends online. These relationships often afford opportunities to interact with a more diverse peer group than offline, and the relationships are close and meaningful and provide important support to youth in times of stress.
Prinstein said, when teens viewed these same illegal and/or dangerous behaviors on social media alongside icons suggesting they’d been “liked” by others, the part of the brain that keeps us safe stopped working as well, “suggesting that the ‘likes’ may reduce youths’ inhibition (i.e., perhaps increasing their proclivity) towards dangerous and illegal behavior.”
It is believed that this content has grown on social media sites as a means of teaching young people how to engage in each behavior, how to conceal their activities from adults, and how to socially sanction those expressing a desire for less risky behavior.
“Research examining adolescents’ brains while on a simulated social media site, for example, revealed that when exposed to illegal, dangerous imagery, activation of the prefrontal cortex was observed suggesting healthy inhibition towards maladaptive behaviors,” Prinstein told lawmakers.
Prinstein warned lawmakers that “victimization, harassment, and discrimination against racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities is frequent online and often targeted at young people. There is a high level of threats, threats, and self-harm on the social media of queer youth.
Brain scans show that online harassment can cause physical and mental health damage because of its effect on the same regions of the brain that respond to physical pain.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior.”
A video of the assault on the 14-year-old girl in New Jersey was shared on social media and she took her own life.
Teens may find it hard to look like everyone else out there: the effects of social media exposure on self-esteem, weight management, and depression
Even adults feel it. We go onto social media and compare ourselves to everyone else out there, from the sunsets in our vacation pics to our waistlines – but especially our waistlines and how we look, or feel we should look, based on who’s getting “likes” and who’s not. For teens, the impacts of such comparisons can be amplified.
Exposure to this online content is associated with lower self-esteem among young people, according to psychological science. This exposure creates strong risk factors for eating disorders, unhealthy weight-management behaviors, and depression,” Prinstein testified.
Research shows that more than half of adolescents are on screens in the evening, and this can stop them from getting enough sleep. Poor sleep is associated with many problems, including bad mental health, poor performance in school, and trouble regulating stress. In other words, youths’ preoccupation with technology and social media may deleteriously affect the size of their brains,” Prinstein said.