Social Media May Damage Youth Brains – New Study Alarms Parents

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This report looks at internet addiction in children and teens. With the summer holidays not far away this might be an issue that you might like to have a family conversation about and make some choices around the use of smartphones and computers and rethink how much time is safe for your children to spend on their mobile phones with friends, time online playing games and on time on their social media accounts. This could also be extrapolated and as adults maybe we need to rethink how much time we spend on our devices. After long periods on electronic devices, how do you feel when you walk away? Do you feel a little spaced out and disorientated? Are your eyes tired and sore? This is an indication that your physical body is being affected by your time on screen. Perhaps it is taking a toll on our mental health too. Just a thought to contemplate.  

Internet addiction has surpassed drug use as a top concern for parents of teens, according to an eye-opening study published in JAMA Network Open.

In a survey of 1,005 parents, twice as many cited concerns about internet addiction compared to substance addiction among their 9- to 15-year-old children. With excessive internet use linked to a range of problems, including alcohol dependence, depression, anxiety, and insomnia, along with socialization issues, parents are growing more concerned about this type of addiction

Parents Worried About Brain Development

While 71.6% of survey respondents felt their children could use the internet responsibly, this didn’t allay their fears about the effects of internet usage on development. More than half (51.1%) expressed concerns about how internet usage may affect social development, while 46.2% were concerned about cognitive development effects, and another 46.7% worried about its effects on physical development. Access to inappropriate content and cyberbullying were noted as top reasons behind the development concerns, while internet addiction was also a common theme. Among the parents, 32.9% expressed feeling equally worried about internet and substance addiction in their children, but 22.4% were only concerned with internet addiction — more than twice as many as the 9.8% who reported their sole concern was substance addiction.

Some parents also expressed that internet use had some benefit on family connectedness, but this was tempered with concerns over adverse effects on development and addiction: “Perceived benefits of internet use were balanced by parental concerns about the potential of social networking platforms to contribute to internet addiction, echoing recent warnings by the US Surgeon General.

Parents also endorsed overriding concerns about the risks of cyberbullying and exposure to inappropriate or harmful content. Previous work found that these dangers are particularly relevant to specific age and social contextual factors. The benefit-risk balance was particularly evident for immersive virtual reality technologies, which were simultaneously perceived as having a positive effect on family connectedness and increasing the risk of PIU [problematic internet use].”

Constantly Checking Social Media May Harm Brain Development

Parents are right to worry about internet usage, and not only due to addiction concerns. Research published in JAMA Pediatrics found habitually checking social media in early adolescence may alter brain development.

Social feedback in the form of likes and comments can prove to be irresistible to youth, with 78% of 13- to 17-year-olds saying they check their mobile phones hourly, while 35% of teens say they use at least one social media platform almost constantly.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), found that 12- and 13-year-olds who check social media more than 15 times a day become more sensitive to social feedback, including changes in how the brain processes social rewards and punishments.

“Most adolescents begin using technology and social media at one of the most important periods for brain development during our lifetime,” study author Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association, said in a UNC news release, adding:

“Our research demonstrates that checking behaviours on social media could have long-standing and important consequences for adolescents’ neural development, which is critical for parents and policy-makers to consider when understanding the benefits and potential harms associated with teen technology use.”

Four Ways Social Media May Damage Youth Brains

Prinstein detailed four significant implications that social media and internet usage could have on youth:

  1. Increased loneliness, as the platforms lead youth to get “likes” and followers — in other words, metrics — instead of forming relationships with people themselves; research shows teens report increased loneliness after social media use

2. Heightened risk for negative peer influence — In addition to coming across content depicting dangerous or unethical behaviours, seeing “liked” posts containing such content may change adolescents’ perceptions of the behaviour; it may give them the idea, for instance, that their peers accept binge drinking, which could promote the behaviour.

3. Risks for addictive social media use — Social media use activates many of the same areas of the brain that are activated in addition to drugs and alcohol. Not only do many adolescents report near-constant usage of social media, but many also report an inability to stop using it, making remarkable efforts to gain access to social media and using social media to regulate their emotions

4. Alterations in brain development — Citing the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study, he noted that technology and social media use change the way the brain works, especially with high usage. Data from teens’ phones reveal that usage is, indeed, high, with sixth graders picking up their phones more than one hundred times a day, and some picking them up more than four hundred times daily. Adolescents also spend an average of 8.2 hours on devices each day, with some spending twice that amount Digital stress, which occurs from connection overload, fear of missing out on online conversations or feeling the need to be always available online, along with anxiety over gaining approval online, is another significant issue. Close to 50% of youth on social media suffer from digital stress, which is associated with increases in depressive symptoms.

Take action to protect your children

  • Unplugging from social media and excessive internet usage — a so-called digital detox — may benefit your and your child’s mental health.
  • Encouraging youth to turn off electronics and spend time outdoors engaged in sports, gardening, walking the dog, or just being in nature should be a priority.
  • Whenever you have an opportunity to get off of screens and outdoors, do it.
  • Mealtimes, family gatherings and even washing your car are all opportunities to break free from problematic internet usage and reconnect with the real world around you.

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola November 30, 2023 – This is an abridged version of the study.

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