The Internet exploded at the end of September when the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles based on documents leaked by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen. Covering topics such as political and medical disinformation, concerns about sex trafficking, and the detrimental effects of social media on young people’s mental health, the documents revealed a disheartening narrative - the people behind Facebook know about the problems with their platform, and rather than trying to improve them, appear to be taking steps to hide these internal workings. The publishing of the Facebook Files and Haugen’s subsequent Congressional testimony reignited a global conversation about the ways we use social media, and the ways social media uses us.
In our August newsletter, we discussed i-tech and digital addiction, a relevant topic considering how much of our lives are connected to our screens. But Facebook’s internal study on teenagers’ social media use and well-being had the team here at Aspen discussing another, deeply consequential question: what is social media doing to our kids?
To put it plainly, the landscape of adolescence has fundamentally changed with access to technology. Gone are the golden days of kids riding bikes around town, haunting parks and shopping malls and corner stores, only heading back home when the streetlights turned on or the dinner bell rang. Now, on average, teenagers are looking at a screen for six to nine hours a day (not including screen time for school or homework!), and according to a Pew Research Center study in 2018, 45% of teens ages 13-17 report being online “almost constantly.” The Millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996) is considered to be the first generation of digital natives, a term for someone who has grown up with access to computers, cell phones, and the Internet. But today’s teenagers are the same age as the first iPhone, and they can’t remember a time before Snapchat existed. They are, more than anyone, entrenched in the digital experience.
Quantifying a change in the adolescent experience over generations is a challenging task. Longitudinal studies are difficult and costly to conduct, and changes to self-report measures over the years bring into question the validity and reliability of comparing certain data sets. There are, however, certain nationally representative surveys of teenagers going back decades that can help us understand how life is changing for our youth. Dr. Jean Twenge, a psychologist who specializes in research on generational differences, leverages these types of surveys in her studies on teens and digital media. After 2012, Twenge began to see a concerning trend in the data: a sudden decrease in teenagers’ reported self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness. This occurred simultaneously with a drastic increase in teenage depression and suicide, as well as a higher likelihood of adolescents reporting feelings of loneliness and being left out. Twenge and her colleagues attribute these changes to the rise of smartphone technology, noting that 2012 marks the first year that over half of Americans owned a smartphone.
Indeed, over the past two decades, numerous accounts of the harmful effects of social media on teenagers have come to light. A 2019 study found that 12 to 15 year olds who used social media for upwards of 3 hours a day had an increased risk of developing mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Any amount of time spent engaging with peers in online spaces puts young people at risk for cyberbullying, which is more challenging to recognize and regulate than bullying that happens in physical environments. And, as the leaked info from Facebook reminds us, social media reinforces a paradigm of comparison to which teenagers are particularly vulnerable. When everyone has the ability to put forth an idealized persona online, it is easy to feel like we are less rich, less beautiful, and less happy than others appear to be. Multiple studies have shown that a high amount of social media use is harmful to body image in both girls and boys, as highly edited and filtered images set an unrealistic standard for the ideal body.
On top of all that, social media is highly addictive - in fact, most social sites are carefully designed to keep you scrolling for as long as possible. Why? As Trevor Haynes puts it in Harvard University’s Science in the News blog, “Because most social media platforms are free, they rely on revenue from advertisers to make a profit. This system works for everyone involved at first glance, but it has created an arms race for your attention and time. Ultimately, the winners of this arms race will be those who best use their product to exploit the features of the brain’s reward systems.”
In 2020, the average digital media consumer spent nearly 2.5 hours per day on social media! We touched on it briefly in our digital addiction newsletter, but let’s dig further into some of the subtle ways the most addictive apps manipulate our attention and how it affects teenagers in particular.
In the 1950s, psychologist B.F. Skinner found that lab rats presented with a lever in their cage would press it almost compulsively when they couldn’t predict how often the mechanism would dispense a treat. This reinforcement method, referred to as a variable schedule of reward, is the same one that makes slot machines so addictive. As our anticipation of a reward grows, our brain releases dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, leaving us continually seeking more, even after we receive the reward we thought we so desperately wanted.
Silicon Valley tech companies refer to implementing variable reward mechanics into your platform as “The Hook Model” because of how effectively it hooks users. Every time you open Facebook, there’s no predicting what you’re going to see. It could be a cute cat picture, or a casual acquaintance from high school announcing their engagement. On the other hand, it could be a highly controversial news article, or an ad for a product you were just thinking about buying. The unpredictability keeps us coming back for more. Same thing goes for notifications. When our phone buzzes, it’s usually something insignificant. But the anticipation of a coveted digital interaction - someone retweeted my Tweet, someone commented on my latest Instagram post - makes us feel the urge to check. Again and again, like the rats in Skinner’s box.
Another way social sites keep our attention is through the simple mechanic of the “infinite scroll.” Think about it - when was the last time you reached the end of the page on your social media app of choice? The answer might be never. With infinite scroll, social sites will continue to generate posts as you scroll down the page, leaving you with a never-ending feed of content. This feature was designed to create a seamless user experience, but it has a more sinister side effect - it eliminates the opportunity for users to reach a reasonable stopping point. This is just another way to guarantee that once you’re on, you stay on, generating valuable ad revenue for whichever social media site has captured your attention that day.
These design tricks work on just about everybody - after all, they are built on evidence from decades of psychological research. But it turns out that they are extra efficient when it comes to the teenage brain. The prefrontal cortex is the last area of the human brain to develop, continuing to mature throughout adolescence and into a person’s mid-20s. This is the area of the brain that handles functions related to cognitive control: attention, planning, decision making, goal maintenance, and impulse control, among others. Consider, then, that most kids get their first social media account around 13 years old (the age at which federal protections on data privacy become more lenient), and that the part of their brain that allows them to regulate their impulses is still not fully formed. This means that teenagers are getting access to this addictive technology at precisely the time when they are least equipped to be able to control their behavior.
Teenage brains are susceptible in other ways, too. Studies on gambling have found that activity in the basal ganglia (part of the brain’s reward pathway) in response to monetary rewards peak in mid-adolescence. A high sensitivity to monetary reward keeps people at the slot machine even when they’ve lost a tremendous amount of money, because any pull of the lever could be the next jackpot. According to these studies, we’re most vulnerable to this level of sensitivity in our teenage years. Some researchers have posited that the adolescent sensitivity to monetary reward could also extend to social reward paradigms. Certainly, this would explain why teenagers are so driven by social media metrics like the “cool ratio.” Just like with gambling, a high sensitivity to social reward reinforces social media use, as the brain’s dopaminergic pathways are continually activated the more likes, comments, shares, and follows we accumulate.
Social media might even impact the volume of our brains. One study found that excessive social media use was associated with degradation of white matter in areas of the brain related to attention, emotional processing, and decision making. Those are all functions that are crucial for managing our behavior and time spent on social media, so a decrease in the connectivity of these areas could contribute to the feedback loop that keeps us scrolling. Another study found that high daily frequency of checking Facebook was linked to smaller grey matter volumes in the nucleus accumbens, the neural pathways that are activated in response to pleasurable experiences. This suggests that there may be a physiological explanation for the feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness that are commonly attributed to excessive social media use. Combined with teenagers’ underdeveloped behavioral control and elevated sensitivity to social reward, these factors make social media appear to be a near inescapable trap for young users.
The bottom line is that social media is designed to be addictive, and teenagers are more susceptible to that trap and all of its side effects due to their developing brains.
To schedule your appointment and get more information, call us today at (970) 281-7872 or visit aspenneurofeedback.com to get started.
Director of Neurotherapy, Aspen Neurofeedback