As a society, we have succumbed to the enticing powers of social media. What was first an unusual phenomenon has become the center of modern socialization. Now, many of us spend large chunks of our days scrolling through Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. During pandemic times, this heightened amount of screen time has only become more common in teenagers. Canceled activities have created a void that many teens are filling with social media. And worse, there is no balance. Ultimately, this prolonged media use can contribute to worsened depression and anxiety rates among adolescents. We asked New Jersey Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Ellen DiMeglio, to weigh in on the detrimental effects of this excessive social media usage among our youth.
Social Media & Neural Development
A critical part of neural development in teenagers involves socialization. Forming social connections and interacting with other humans is vital. We learn from seeing facial expressions, noticing body language, and conversing among peers. Needless to say, viewing social media posts and texting friends is no replacement. Each time we have an in-person interaction with a peer, a rush of oxytocin and endorphins allows us the comfort and confidence to socialize among others. These hormones aren’t released when we send text messages, as they lack any visible or audible means of connection.
Dr. DiMeglio notes, “the ability to use social media in moderation requires skills that many tweens and teens have not quite developed yet. These include impulse control, delaying gratification, and staying focused on less interesting things…like homework!”
As a teenager, your brain is barely prepared to cope with the complex lure of social media. In a world where it’s typical, if not most common, to communicate with friends through social media, neural evolution is precarious.
Social Media is Addictive
The power of “knowing” is dangerous, and even addictive. Unfortunately for our young kids and teenagers, excessive knowledge regarding the people around us is normalized. Today, 95 percent of teenagers have access to a smartphone and about half of teenagers say they use social media almost constantly. There is a reason for this, and it has to do with chemical reactions in the brain.
Every time we get a like on an Instagram post or a mention on Facebook, our brains release a flood of dopamine. This burst of dopamine makes us happy as it activates the reward pathways in the brain. Our brains begin to associate social media use with positive reinforcement, and thus, the urge to check our posts becomes stronger. Research shows that the neurochemical reaction elicited by social media is comparable to drug use.
Not surprisingly, our reward systems are most active when we are talking about ourselves. With social media being a stage to share anything and everything about ourselves, we are that much more susceptible to addictive usage. Furthermore, the unpredictability of social media is what keeps us coming back for more. Each time we make a post, we wonder how many likes we’ll get, who is going to comment, who will see. Like a gambler on a slot machine, we just can’t stop.
Poor Mental Health & Social Media Use
Many teens find themselves compulsively checking social media, and you can’t really blame them. The excessive knowledge associated with these platforms breeds obsessive behavior. With teens, such behavior is commonly linked to aspects of social anxiety-like FOMO (fear of missing out), characterized by the fear and stress associated with missing social events. Negative emotional reactions that are triggered by social media lead to increased depression and anxiety among adolescents and young adults. Research shows an alarming jump from 13 to 66 percent in depression rates among teenagers who report spending the most time on platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Perhaps most frightening are the large-scale changes in suicide rates among young children and teenagers in the previous decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 56 percent increase in suicide among people ages 10-24 from 2007-2017. Even more alarming are the suicide rates among adolescent girls. From 1999-2014, suicide among girls from ages 10-14 increased three-fold. As might be expected, much of the spotlight is on social media in regard to such disturbing spikes.
Social Media Creates a False Sense of Reality
As young girls scroll through Instagram seeing women with flawless skin and perfect bodies, they wonder why they look so different: However, in the modern world, we have tools at our disposal to adjust photographs of ourselves. We can be who we want to on social media accounts, as editing apps allow us to cinch our waists, blur skin imperfections, and even change our eye color. Of course, this kind of deceptive culture comes at a psychological cost.
Dr. DiMeglio explains how social media can negatively impact self-esteem among teens and young adults, as they tend to get “sucked into” the idea that everything on social media is real, consequently feeling badly about their own lives and skills. It’s no wonder girls and women report Instagram to be the social media platform that most elicits a worsened body image and anxiety, as it is designed for posting photos of yourself. Unrealistic standards of what a typical human looks like are fed to teenagers. This kind of façade gives rise to a lack of confidence and self-esteem, contributing to ever-growing mental health problems among youth.
Social Media Is Favorable in Moderation
I am certainly not knocking how much social media can provide us. Modern technology and social media have done wonders for many. Dr. DiMeglio puts it perfectly, as she describes social media to be one of those things that, if used in moderation, can provide some benefits. These include making information available, connecting adolescents with distant family and friends, and purely for entertainment. Nonetheless, the adverse psychological effects brought about by excessive usage are impossible to ignore.
As a young adult, saturating your time with social media can be detrimental to neurological development and psychological health. However, limiting usage is possible and much more favorable for your overall well-being.
Dr. Ellen DiMeglio, Psy.D is a Clinical Psychologist based in Scotch Plains, NJ.
Photo by Ant Rozetsky