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Looking for ‘Likes’: Teens and Social Media Addiction

"Teens’ relationship to social media addiction is a big topic today. Teenagers are among the biggest consumers of social media—but is it consuming them? Scientists are discovering an increasing number of troubling links between social networking and mental health challenges. These range from distress to teen depression. Furthermore, research is also zeroing in on the effects of social media addiction on the teenage brain.

First of all, let’s take a look at the numbers.

The Stats on Teen Social Media Addiction

  • 92% of teens go online daily, and 24% say they go online “almost constantly.”

  • 76% of teens use social media (81% of older teens, 68% of teens ages 13 and 14).

  • 71% of teens use Facebook, 52% use Instagram, 41% use Snapchat, 33% use Twitter, and 14% use Tumblr.

  • 77% of parents say their teens get distracted by their devices and don’t pay attention when they’re together.

  • 59% of parents say they feel their teen is addicted to their mobile device.

  • 50% of teens say they feel addicted to their mobile device.

Sources: Pew Research Center and Common Sense Media

Social Media Addiction: A Cause, or a Symptom?

Research shows that teenagers’ use of social media goes hand in hand with increased teen depression.

But is social media a catalyst for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues? Or, is social media addiction a symptom of a mental health disorder? These are not always easy questions to answer.

Kids who already feel isolated and unhappy are particularly vulnerable. Teens and social media addiction are an unfortunate match. In addition, teens seek online experiences for a sense of escape and connection, according to Nicholas Kardaras, author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids—and How to Break the Trance. But the relief is short-lived. Hence, the constant overstimulation of social networking shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode. Also, this makes disorders such as ADHD, teen depression, oppositional defiant disorder, and teen anxiety worse. “Furthermore, for teens, being addicted to Facebook or other forms of social media is a never-ending addictive loop. Therefore, they keep coming back for more, whether their emotional response is good or bad.

Teen Social Media Use and Addictive Behavior

The frequency of a teen’s use of social media has a clear correlation to how they feel. A CNN study of 13-year-olds and their relationship with social media, called #Being13, generated profound insights. The research found that participants who checked Facebook or other networking sites between 50 and 100 times a day were 37 percent more distressed than those who checked just a few times a day. Those who checked more than 100 times a day were 47 percent more distressed on average.

Bottom line: Whether or not your teen is dealing with a mental health issue, excessive time spent social networking is never a good thing. That’s particularly true because of how social media use affects the still-developing teenage brain.

How Social Media Affects the Brain

What biological and chemical processes are set off by social media use? And how do they affect the brain? Scientists have found that overuse of technology in general, and social media in particular, creates a stimulation pattern similar to the pattern created by other addictive behaviors.

A new study shows that receiving “likes” on social media activates the same circuits in the teenage brain that are activated by eating chocolate or winning money.

“The brain responds to social media the same way it responds to real-life connections, with a release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure and works in the reward center of the brain,” says Wilson. “Positive reinforcement comes when a teen posts something online and is met with likes, shares, and positive comments from their circle of peers. The rush of dopamine that occurs with this positive feedback creates a ‘high’. For some, this can begin the cycle of the need to recreate that feeling with more posts and thus more time on social media.”

Teen Social Media Addiction and the Brain

Frequent use of social media actually rewires the developing teen brain to constantly seek out immediate gratification. Consequently, it can lead to other addictive behaviors. According to a review study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, “sudden cessation of online social networking may in some chronic users cause signs and symptoms that at least partially resemble the ones seen during drug/alcohol/nicotine abstinence syndrome.” A Facebook addiction scale developed in 2012 looked at six of the core elements of addiction as applied to social networking.

So how can parents recognize when their teen is overdoing it? Here’s how to tell.
  • When a teen spends increasing amounts of time online.

  • If not online, your teen is preoccupied with thoughts of being online.

  • Teens have trouble cutting back on social media time, even when you limit their use.

  • They lie about the amount of time they are spending online.

  • Your teen shows signs of anxiety and/or depression after spending time online.

Is There Anything Good About Social Media?

People of all ages enjoy staying in touch with family and friends via social networking. But using social media is far more complicated for teenagers.

“The work of adolescence is really twofold: to gain a sense of individuality and identity, and to find strong connections with others who are trustworthy and loyal,” says Wilson. Social media can both help and hinder teens in achieving these goals in their journey toward adulthood.

Teens can access an unlimited number of people on any given site and may find support and a sense of community. But they can also encounter the opposite, Wilson warns. Cyberbullying and harassment are widespread on social media platforms and can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and powerlessness.

Teen Social Media Use Replaces Real Experiences

Consequently, no matter how many “likes” their posts collect, teens won’t benefit if they substitute social media for real-life friendships.

A 2013 study of 82 young adults found that the more they used Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels declined.

“On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection,” the authors of the study wrote. “Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Social Media and Self-Esteem

Showing off one’s “best” traits on social media should help you feel better about yourself, right? That’s not necessarily the case. According to psychologists, consistently focusing on oneself actually reduces self-esteem. One study showed that increased Facebook activity was related not only to symptoms of low self-esteem, but also to narcissism.

Comparing oneself to others is a frequently cited cause of discomfort and low self-esteem for social media users. In a study examining the link between Facebook and depression, researchers found that frequent Facebook users often compare themselves with others, which leads to overthinking and rumination. Therefore, this in turn leads to feelings of depression. Teens tend to compare themselves to their peers frequently, both in real life and online. Hence, social media addiction can negatively impact self-esteem.

It’s important to realize that low self-esteem is an underlying cause of many mental-health challenges, including:

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Self-harming behaviors

  • Substance abuse.

Social Media Takes Us Out of the Moment

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi used the term “flow state” to describe the experience of being completely absorbed by an activity. When we’re engaged in a flow activity, our brain waves shift to the alpha waves associated with rest and relaxation. Teens particularly benefit from flow, according to research.

But it’s nearly impossible to maintain flow when we’re constantly stopping what we’re doing in order to record our activity and share it online. As a result, we distance ourselves from the beneficial experience of being completely caught up in something we enjoy or something we’re good at.

What Parents Can Do

What realistic approaches can parents take to help their teens create a healthier relationship to social media and prevent social media addiction? Parents can have a significant positive impact, Wilson says. In the #Being13 study, parents who kept a close eye on their child’s social media accounts had a profound effect on their psychological well-being, virtually erasing the negative impact on their teen of online conflict.

Here are a few steps to take.
  • Talk openly with your teen about social media and the feelings associated with its use.

  • Set aside screen-free zones, like the dinner table and bedrooms, and make sure everyone (including adults) abides by them.

  • Be a good role model. Show your teen by example that it’s important to unplug regularly and to find offline activities they enjoy.

  • Keep tabs on your teen’s social media accounts. For a younger teen, help them set up an account and install all privacy restrictions. For an older teen, know which social media sites they are on, talk with them about what to post and what not to post, and create ground rules.

  • Take time to learn about social media—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Educate yourself so you can be proactive in talking to your teen about what’s new (and possibly dangerous) in cyberspace.

Ultimately, Wilson says, you can’t control everything about the way your teen interacts with social media, but you can help them create a positive sense of self that doesn’t require validation from an online world."

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