If you’re a teenager, have you ever caught yourself scrolling through Instagram or TikTok unawares? Forwarding funny videos to friends while Netflix plays to nobody, only to realise it’s been an hour and you should be getting to bed? It’s no secret that Instagram and TikTok have revolutionised the way we connect, share, and communicate. These platforms offer avenues for self-expression, entertainment, and information exchange. And they’re almost synonymous with young people today. It’s easy now to spend your day scrolling through reel after reel of cute animals, epic fails and laugh-out-loud content. However, the pervasive presence of social media in the lives of teenagers raises questions about its potential effects on their developing brains. Is it healthy? Is it harmful? Let’s take a look at the relationship between social media use and the teenage brain.
Teenagers may consider themselves adults, even to a degree of stubbornness in some cases, but they aren’t quite yet. Even once they’re 18 and legally ‘grown-up’, their brain is still developing, with ti continuing to do so right up until a person is 25. The teenage brain is a complex and malleable entity, undergoing critical developments in areas responsible for emotional regulation, decision-making and impulse control. Social media, with its instant gratification and constant notifications, can trigger the brain’s reward system . . . and alter it. This also can also wreak havoc on your ability to focus.
A teenage brain is still developing the ability to focus and prioritise tasks. However, the rapid scrolling, swiping, and multitasking demanded by platforms like Instagram and TikTok can contribute to shortened attention spans.
Similar to computer games, where getting a win or opening up some ‘loot’ triggers a similar response in the brain, the constant influx of bite-sized content gives a quick dopamine hit, commonly known as ‘instant gratification’. This makes it challenging for the brain to engage deeply with longer forms of information. This can impact academic performance and the ability to concentrate on complex tasks that require sustained attention. Suddenly, teens may find it hard to read more than a few sentences at a time, focus in lessons at school and even struggle to settle down to sleep at night.
From staging scenarios to Photoshop, make-up and filters, a lot of these images and videos on Instagram and TikTok are often quite a step away from being authentic.
While these platforms celebrate diversity, they also set unrealistic beauty standards that can impact teenagers’ self-esteem. The constant exposure to images of seemingly flawless individuals can lead to negative self-comparisons and body dissatisfaction.
There’s been some research that suggests that prolonged exposure to such content can contribute to feelings of inadequacy and even body dysmorphic tendencies, particularly among impressionable adolescents.
But what about posting content?
When we receive likes, comments, or followers on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, our brain releases dopamine—a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This creates a cycle where the brain craves more interactions and positive feedback, fostering a sense of validation and self-worth tied to online interactions. Doesn’t sound healthy, does it?
The ‘Fear of Missing Out,’ or FOMO, is a common phenomenon intensified by social media. Scrolling through Instagram and TikTok, teenagers are exposed to their peers’ seemingly exciting and eventful lives. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and inadequacy, as teenagers perceive their own lives as less exciting in comparison.
The portrayal of experiences on social media may not reflect the full reality, yet the emotional toll of FOMO can be very real, impacting teenagers’ mental well-being.
The blue light emitted by screens interferes with the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Prolonged social media use, especially before bedtime, can disrupt sleep patterns and lead to sleep deprivation.
Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to sleep disturbances due to developmental changes in their circadian rhythms. Sleep is crucial for cognitive functions like memory consolidation and emotional regulation, so compromising on sleep can have far-reaching consequences on their overall well-being. So, try to put the phone down an hour before bed. Or, if you can’t do that, turn the brightness down a bit.
While social media connects people, it also opens doors to cyberbullying and negative interactions. Through direct messaging and the worrying simplicity of creating accounts, it’s very easy for trolls and cyberbullies to cause harm regularly, and sadly with little consequence. The anonymity afforded by these platforms can embolden individuals to engage in hurtful behaviour they might not engage in face-to-face. Cyberbullying can have devastating effects on the mental health of teenagers, leading to depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. The constant pressure to present a polished online persona can exacerbate the impact of such negative experiences.
While the potential negative impacts of social media are significant, it’s important to recognise that not all social media interactions are harmful.
Platforms like Instagram and TikTok can provide spaces for creative expression, learning, and connection with like-minded individuals. There are plenty of wholesome and productive accounts out there and there’s plenty of room for more.
It’s crucial for teenagers to develop critical thinking skills and cultivate a healthy relationship with social media. Encouraging them to curate their online feeds to promote positivity, authenticity, and diverse perspectives can help mitigate some of the potential negative effects.
Teens: remember to strike a balance between online and offline life, be mindful of hour interactions, and prioritise your mental health. Understanding the potential impact of social media on your brain can help you to make informed choices and shape a healthier digital future.