Hands pressing on multiple apps

In Brief:

      • Since its inception at the end of the 2000s, social media apps have been extremely popular with kids in middle school and high school.
      • Medical professionals are only now beginning to understand the neurological impact that social media is having on children.
      • Frequent use of social media is actually transforming the way children cognitively develop.
      • Rates of depression and feelings of loneliness have actually skyrocketed amongst adolescences since 2007, the beginning of the social media era.
      • Children should still be given the opportunity to use social media within moderation, read below for steps you can take to make sure your child doesn’t become addicted.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “kids these days don’t play outside anymore.” The truth is, social media is quite possibly the greatest societal paradox. The more innovative it becomes, the less social it is.  For many kids, the world their parents grew up in seems like an alien concept.

The endless cul-de-sac football games, impromptu snowball fights, and staying out until dark without parental supervision all seem to have fallen by the wayside in favor of more progressive parenting norms. While kids now prefer to hangout online and socialize through a myriad of social media apps, there appear to be numerous downsides that researchers are only beginning to understand.

Social media global impact of apps

The Neurological Side-Effects Of Social Media On Children

Addiction is a frequently used word in American society. Children are indoctrinated in programs such as D.A.R.E to avoid drugs at all costs while politicians rail against the massive economic burden that pharmaceuticals like opioids place on small communities. Yet, up until fairly recently, technology addiction was not even a recognized disorder by the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the International Classification of Diseases.

According to a study by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA), children spend an estimated 75 percent of their day on devices. Another study by the ICMPA found that when children were forced to go without their device for just one day, they experienced extreme loneliness.

The constant stimulus provided by technology coupled with a lack of real-world relationships has had a drastic effect on adolescent brain development. A team of researchers led by Dr. Lauren Sherman theorized in 2016 that social media has completely transformed the social learning aspect of childhood. Before the rise of social media in the latter part of the 2000s, young people would learn normalized interactions through face-to-face meetings.

A person would gauge the effectiveness of their message based on the facial expressions of the listener. At present, kids judge the effectiveness of their messages based on the amount of likes they procure. Kids place such a precedence on likes, that it is actually transforming the reward center of their brain’s as well.

The same researchers also studied the brains of teens as they browsed social media. Using an fMRI scanner to map the participants’ brains, the team gained valuable insight into their reward centers. As the teens profiles received likes on an Instagram-like app, their neural-activity spiked. Sherman explained, “when the teens learn that their own pictures… have received a lot of likes, they show significantly greater activation in parts of the brain’s reward circuitry.” For Sherman, teens are avid social media users because, like any addictive entity, the brain craves rewarding stimuli.

A girl using social media on iPhone

The Link Between Social Media and Juvenile Depression

Even though social media may provide a momentary sense of happiness, according to psychological studies, kids are more miserable than ever. Researchers in Montreal studied over 4,000 adolescents over a 4-year period and found that screen time positively correlated with feelings of depression. In other words, the longer these adolescents interacted with devices, the more unhappy they felt. 

The researchers concluded that when social media is used as a conduit of “upward social comparison”, it tends to be harmful. When kids swipe through their classmates’ social media feed, they are often bombarded with images of tropical vacations, parties they may not have been invited to, or filtered images that depict an unobtainable standard of beauty. For adolescents who come from a broken home, a comparably modest standard of living, or are perhaps in the middle of the dreaded “awkward phase”, depression and feelings of low self-esteem can be quick to move in. 

This past October, the Center for Disease Control sounded the alarm on the colossal rise in teen suicide. According to the CDC, the number of teen suicides increased 56 percent between 2007 and 2017. While mental health professionals have not provided an official reason for the unfortunate spike, some have argued that the findings are directly linked to the inception of social media around 2007. A study published in the medical journal, Clinical Psychological Science, found that the number of teens that used smartphones for five hours or more between 2009 and 2015 doubled. These teens were 70 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

A boy sits down because he is depressed

Why Girls are More Negatively Impacted by Social Media Than Boys

The trend for girls may be the most alarming part of the study. In 2015, 45 percent of girls surveyed reported feeling “desperately sad, hopeless, or suicidal”, a five percent increase from 2009. The increase in feelings of sadness also correlates to an increase in reports of self-harm among adolescent girls. The annual rate of self-injuries among females between the ages of 10 and 24 nearly doubled from 2009 to 2015. On a 2019 episode of the world famous podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explained why social media is much more destructive to girls than boys.

Haidt proclaims, “using social media does not really affect boys very much but it does affect girls… First look at the nature of aggression within the sexes. Boys are physically dominating. If you give them an iPhone… they don’t use it to hurt each other.” Haidt continues, “but girls don’t bully each other by threatening to punch each other in the face. Girls bully each other by damaging the other girl’s social relationships, spreading rumors, spreading lies, spreading a doctored photograph, saying bad things, excluding them. It’s relational aggression. So beginning around 2010-2011… here’s this beautiful thing in your hand and here’s all these programs where you can damage anyone’s social relationships anytime of the day or night… from an anonymous account.”

As Haidt suggests, girls can inflict a lot of damage to another girl’s psyche from an anonymous account. The hit Netflix show 13 Reasons Why explores a female teen suicide and the events that lead up to the girl taking her own life. Before each episode, various mental health resources are flashed across the screen to help any person that may be comtemplating suicide.

Three girls use social media in a group

How Parents Can Combat the Effects of Social Media

Preventing children from accessing social media isn’t going to help the issue. After all, social media is still a great way for kids to make new friends, produce content they are passionate about, and share their life milestones. But, as with everything else in life, moderation is key. Parents should actively limit their child’s screen time, especially during family dinners and before bed. 

It is vital that kids get the required amount of sleep they need due to the fact that their brains are still developing. Yale medical expert Dr. Meir Kryger recommends that kids turn their phones off at least one hour before bed to ensure quality sleep. Experts also advise parents to look for symptoms of social media addiction including withdrawal, an interference with real-life communication, self-esteem issues, and a constant need to check profiles. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

When social media first rocketed into our collective consciousness at the end of the 2000s, we did not yet understand the effect it would have on the most vulnerable – children. Imagine throwing a loaded gun at a group kids and turning your back. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool that has changed the very fabric of modern society. Unfortunately, the inventors of popular applications, health professionals, and politicians did not stop to consider the toll it could on future generations.

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