How does social media affect children’s brain development?

Social media has become the modern way of communicating, and it’s something that most parents didn’t have growing up. As such, it can be difficult for us to know how beneficial, or otherwise, this new technology is for our children. With research showing that 90% of teens use some form of social media from age 13 upwards, it’s vital that parents understand how these platforms can impact their children’s brain development and social behaviours.

Of course, there are many positives to social media, from being able to connect with family and friends worldwide in an instant to networking with individuals who share common interests that you would never otherwise meet – but is there a darker side?

In this article, we will explore the latest scientific research on how social media affects children’s brain development.

Hypersensitivity

There’s reason to believe that children who grow up checking social media may become hypersensitive to criticism from their peers. As children begin to grow into teenagers, their brains undergo a natural change that encourages them to seek social rewards in the form of attention and approval from their friends. Historically, this is usually received by a small group, but with social media making it possible for hundreds of people to give instant feedback on every post, comment and share – this can quickly become overwhelming for adolescents.

For example, in the days pre-social media, a teenager may hear a couple of opinions on their new hairstyle, then perhaps learn of a few more via hearsay. This would typically be through the voice of their friends at school. But if a teen today posts a picture of themselves with a new hairstyle on social media, it leaves them open to an infinite number of comments and opinions which they will inherently take to heart due to their brains’ natural development stage.

This can unfortunately lead to a sense of heightened anxiety and body image concerns, with the risk of depression and mental health issues being increased if the feedback they receive is unkind.

Sense of identity

Children and adults alike all receive a chemical rush of feel-good hormones, dopamine and oxytocin, whenever we use our smartphones or technological devices. It’s a sense of instant gratification which can quickly become addictive to those with less developed prefrontal cortex – the area of our brains that can help regulate our emotional responses. This means that for children and teens, the emotional response to social stimuli is heightened. Their natural drive for approval paired with this leaves them open to deep emotional distress if they fall victim to cyberbullying or negativity via social platforms.

Overuse of social media at this crucial age can distort a young person’s sense of identity, and severely impact how they perceive themselves. As we all know, images can be altered on social media to be more aesthetically pleasing, which can impact children’s sense of self-worth and pave the way for body dysmorphia and other mental health issues.

Moderation is key

Whilst these findings can be frightening for parents and caregivers to learn, it doesn’t necessarily mean we should strip our children of all their devices. Helping your teen to learn to regulate their social media use and understand that it does not truly reflect the realities of day-to-day life can help them to overcome these challenges.

Social media isn’t going away any time soon, and refusing your teenager the same privileges and freedoms as their peers can have equally worrying consequences on their emotional state. It seems that moderation is key for striking a healthy balance between allowing your child to engage in the social expectations of their generation, and protecting their still-developing brains from the potential dangers social media can bring.

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