Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

10 things to know about how social media affects teens' brains

Tracy J. Lee for NPR

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 9-8-8.


The statistics are sobering. Nearly 1 in 3 teen girls report having seriously considered suicide in the past year. One in 5 teens identifying as LGBTQ+ say they attempted suicide in that time. Between 2009 and 2019, depression rates doubled for all teens. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. The question is: Why now?

"Our brains, our bodies, and our society have been evolving together to shape human development for millennia. ... Within the last 20 years, the advent of portable technology and social media platforms [has been] changing what took 60,000 years to evolve," Mitch Prinstein, the chief science officer at the American Psychological Association (APA), told the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. "We are just beginning to understand how this may impact youth development."

Prinstein's 22-page testimony, along with dozens of useful footnotes, offers some much-needed clarity about the role social media may play in contributing to this teen mental health crisis. For you busy parents, caregivers and educators out there, we've distilled it down to 10 useful takeaways:

1. Social interaction is key to every child's growth and development.

Humans are social creatures, and we learn through social interaction. In fact, said Prinstein, "numerous studies have revealed that children's interactions with peers have enduring effects on their occupational status, salary, relationship success, emotional development, mental health, and even on physical health and mortality over 40 years later. These effects are stronger than the effects of children's IQ, socioeconomic status and educational attainment."

This helps explain why social media platforms have grown so big in a relatively short period of time. But is the kind of social interaction they offer healthy?

2. Social media platforms often traffic in the wrong kind of social interaction.

What's the right kind, you ask? According to Prinstein, it's interactions and relationship-building "characterized by support, emotional intimacy, disclosure, positive regard, reliable alliance (e.g., 'having each other's backs') and trust."

The problem is, social media platforms often (though not always) emphasize metrics over the humans behind the "likes" and "followers," which can lead teens to simply post things about themselves, true or not, that they hope will draw the most attention. And these cycles, Prinstein warned, "create the exact opposite qualities needed for successful and adaptive relationships (i.e., [they are] disingenuous, anonymous, depersonalized). In other words, social media offers the 'empty calories of social interaction,' that appear to help satiate our biological and psychological needs, but do not contain any of the healthy ingredients necessary to reap benefits."

In fact, research has found that social media can actually make some teens feel lonelier

3. It's not all bad.

The APA's chief science officer also made clear that social media and the study of it are both too young to arrive at many conclusions with absolute certainty. In fact, when used properly, social media can feed teens' need for social connection in healthy ways.

"Research suggests that young people form and maintain friendships online. These relationships often afford opportunities to interact with a more diverse peer group than offline, and the relationships are close and meaningful and provide important support to youth in times of stress."

What's more, Prinstein pointed out, for many marginalized teens, "digital platforms provide an important space for self-discovery and expression" and can help them forge meaningful relationships that may buffer and protect them from the effects of stress.

4. Adolescence is a "developmentally vulnerable period" when teens crave social rewards, but don't have the ability to restrain themselves.

That's because, as children enter puberty, the areas of the brain "associated with our craving for 'social rewards,' such as visibility, attention and positive feedback from peers" tend to develop well before the bits of the brain "involved in our ability to inhibit our behavior, and resist temptations," Prinstein said. Social media platforms that reward teens with "likes" and new "followers" can trigger and feed that craving.

5. "Likes" can make bad behavior look good.

Hollywood has long grappled with groups of parents who worry that violent or overly sexualized movies can have a negative effect on teen behavior. Well, similar fears about teens witnessing bad behavior on social media might be well-founded. But it's complicated. Check this out:

"Research examining adolescents' brains while on a simulated social media site, for example, revealed that when exposed to illegal, dangerous imagery, activation of the prefrontal cortex was observed suggesting healthy inhibition towards maladaptive behaviors," Prinstein told lawmakers.

So, that's good. The prefrontal cortex helps us make smart (and safe) decisions. Hooray for the prefrontal cortex! Here's the problem.

When teens viewed these same illegal and/or dangerous behaviors on social media alongside icons suggesting the negative content had been "liked" by others, the part of the brain that keeps us safe stopped working as well, Prinstein said, "suggesting that the 'likes' may reduce youths' inhibition (i.e., perhaps increasing their proclivity) toward dangerous and illegal behavior."

In other words, bad behavior feels bad — until other people start liking it.

6. Social media can also make "psychologically disordered behavior" look good.

Prinstein spoke specifically about websites or online accounts that promote disordered-eating behaviors and nonsuicidal self-injury, like self-cutting.

"Research indicates that this content has proliferated on social media sites, not only depicting these behaviors, but teaching young people how to engage in [them], how to conceal these behaviors from adults, actively encouraging users to engage in these behaviors, and socially sanctioning those who express a desire for less risky behavior."

7. Extreme social media use can look a lot like addiction.

"Regions of the brain activated by social-media-use overlap considerably with the regions involved in addictions to illegal and dangerous substances," Prinstein told lawmakers.

He cited a litany of research that says excessive social media use in teens often manifests some of the same symptoms of more traditional addictions, in part because teen brains just don't have the kind of self-control toolbox that adults do.

8. The threat of online bullying is real.

Prinstein warned lawmakers that "victimization, harassment, and discrimination against racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities is frequent online and often targeted at young people. LGBTQ+ youth experience a heightened level of bullying, threats and self-harm on social media."

And online bullying can take a terrible physical toll, Prinstein said: "Brain scans of adults and youths reveal that online harassment activates the same regions of the brain that respond to physical pain and trigger a cascade of reactions that replicate physical assault and create physical and mental health damage."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "youth who report any involvement with bullying behavior are more likely to report high levels of suicide-related behavior than youth who do not report any involvement with bullying behavior."

Earlier this month, a 14-year-old New Jersey girl took her own life after she was attacked by fellow students at school and a video of the assault was posted on social media.

9. It's hard not to compare yourself to what you see in social media.

Even adults feel it. We go onto social media sites and compare ourselves to everyone else out there, from the sunsets in our vacation pics to our waistlines – but especially our waistlines and how we look, or feel we should look, based on who's getting "likes" and who's not. For teens, the impacts of such comparisons can be amplified.

"Psychological science demonstrates that exposure to this online content is associated with lower self-image and distorted body perceptions among young people. This exposure creates strong risk factors for eating disorders, unhealthy weight-management behaviors, and depression," Prinstein testified.

10. Sleep is more important than those "likes."

Research suggests more than half of adolescents are on screens right before bedtime, and that can keep them from getting the sleep they need. Not only is poor sleep linked to all sorts of downsides, including poor mental health symptoms, poor performance in school and trouble regulating stress, Prinstein said, but "inconsistent sleep schedules are associated with changes in structural brain development in adolescent years. In other words, youths' preoccupation with technology and social media may deleteriously affect the size of their brains."

Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Visual design and development by:
LA Johnson

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.