The science of how habitual use of social media and technology impacts young brains
The social media allure
The internet, especially social media, has undoubtedly revolutionized how people stay informed, entertained, and connected. But several recent studies indicate how social media impacts brain development in children and adolescents.
Given how addictive social networks are for adults, who supposedly possess impulse control, imagine how difficult it would be for young minds to curb the stimulation to use these platforms. If translated into numbers, this stimulation is frightening — research and studies indicate 36% of teens agreed that they spend too much time on social media. A staggering 54% said it would be difficult to give it up.
Children who habitually check social media are more susceptible to rewiring parts of their brains connected to social rewards and punishments. Research also shows a connection between excessive use of social media and increased depression among middle and high school youth. These platforms allow children and adolescents increased social interaction when their brains are sensitive to social feedback, particularly reward feedback, a.k.a. validation.
'How many views did my latest reel get?' 'Have I got a new friend request?' 'How many Likes and Comments did my latest picture get?'
Incessantly scrolling through information, the need for social rewards of likes, comments, and views, and the consequent dopamine hit, all set a vicious cycle in motion.
The science of how social media is rewiring children brains
Let's understand which parts of an adolescent's brain excessive use of social media impacts broadly.
The amygdala, one of the brain's emotional centers that make us fear and react, gets affected. Then there's the part connected with judgment, reasoning, and critical thinking, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, that is impacted — it experiences thinning, especially in children exposed to screens for more than seven hours a day.
Other regions of the brain that are responsible for processing the spectrum of emotions showed lower sensitivity to social anticipation in children who were exposed to social networks more often than those who were not.
More importantly, social media activity is closely tied to the ventral striatum, which releases dopamine and oxytocin when we experience social rewards. Right next to the striatum is the ventral pallidum — a region key to motivating action. The ventral striatum and pallidum — older brain parts that lie below the recently evolved cortex — drive instinctual behaviors.
Why does this excessive social media activity affect children's brains more than adults'? It is precisely because the adult brain is more evolved; with a more mature prefrontal cortex, adults can better regulate emotional responses to social rewards. On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex in children has yet to develop fully; it matures only by the age of 21 years.
What does all this exposure to social media culminate into?
Excessive screen time hampers a child's ability to focus and concentrate and inhibits their ability to observe their surroundings that generate experiences. This inhibition leads to a kind of "tunnel vision" that can be detrimental because they tend to lose out on many other essential things, such as social interactions and indulging in their hobbies, that are crucial to brain development.
Some of the more alarming consequences can be delayed development of cognitive skills. Some children may experience language acquisition delay, face problems concentrating on tasks at hand, and struggle with multitasking.
The age of zero to five years is crucial to brain development — that is when children are rapidly learning, making memories, and forming neurological connections. Hence, neuropsychologists suggest no screen time until 18 to 24 months, gradually introducing it as children age.
A glass-half-full perspective
Are changes caused to a child's brain due to social media exposure irreversible? Could this want for social rewards turn into an addiction? Parents and caregivers grapple with these questions and many more.
It could be a trickle, but here's some relief.
A beautiful thing about the pediatric brain is its neuroplasticity, which is its ability to evolve and change over time based on whatever has happened to it in the past. And that means neurons in the brain that aren't in use are lost, and so is the information stored in them. More importantly, this makes way for new neural connections through experiences.
Children's brains are like clay, moldable and malleable, so the positive to consider is that there are possibilities that children will develop new neural connections in response to their online experiences, thus reducing or diminishing the rewiring of the brain.
To conclude, most children these days have easy access to screens, which will hamper their cognitive skills and affect brain development. It is essential to strike a balance between screen time and actual playtime.
Amygdala: A small part of the brain that is a major processing center for emotions. It also links one’s emotions to many other brain abilities, especially, memories, learning, and senses.
Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: A part of the brain associated with switching attention, working memory, inhibiting inappropriate responses.
Ventral striatum: A part of the limbic system related to decision making and reward-related behavior
Ventral pallidum: A part of the brain that regulates cognitive, emotional, and motor processes associated with motivational salience.