What’s happening in the brain when we’re using social media?
NATHAN: Well, lots! But it depends on how we’re using it, because social media is such an all-encompassing thing. Our brain’s in quite a different pattern when we’re live (in real time) on social media from how it is when we’re leaving a message on a message board. One’s a responsive interaction (like networking in an online game with other players), which is an active process. In contrast, one-way use of social media (such as leaving a message, or – even more so – watching a YouTube video) is passive.
The positive aspect of using social media is that communication and information-sharing are what makes us intelligent beings; the interaction is great for our brains. And because of social media, our kids get to enjoy many more connections than in generations past – it’s now possible to interact far more and communicate far faster than ever before. But the flip side is that our brains haven’t yet evolved for this predominant use of social media – we’re still wired for face-to-face interaction, and that’s what releases all the peptides and hormones that keep us happy.
Overall, the research tells us that social media use in conjunction with face-to-face interaction with friends is probably fine. The people who have really negative outcomes are those who use social media instead of in-person interaction. There’s no substitute for that face-to-face interaction with others. You get a small dose of the feel-good hormones talking to Nana on Skype, but it’s nowhere near as much as when you’re together in person.
The pitfalls of social media are well-documented. Things like FOMO (fear of missing out) and comparing our mundane lives with the ‘highlight reels’ of others can leave people feeling depressed and anxious …
NATHAN: Well, yes. Social media sets you up to want instant gratification, but relationships aren’t always instantly rewarding – they take work, they’re messy, and they’re complicated. In fact, the research indicates that there are actually changes in cognition with social media use. The more screen time teens have had during their childhood and adolescence, the more likely they are to experience anxiety and depression.
This is concerning, because more and more kids (even babies!) are being placated by being handed a screen for distraction. It’s not so much that the devices themselves are doing damage to the brain, it’s the absence of all that other stuff … things that every previous generation experienced, but this new iGeneration are missing out on … like climbing trees, playing, fighting over who’s getting to choose to watch what on which channel – just a million other things that you did when you didn’t have an iPad! And that’s detrimental to the brain.
Having said that, from a research point of view, it’s clear that a teen doesn’t need to avoid devices entirely to avoid that risk. If parents just ensure that their teens have at least two hours a day device-free, their kids will be outside the risk group for anxiety and depression. So as a parent and grandparent, I don’t need to worry about keeping technology from the children altogether – I just need to ensure that they have at least two hours a day where they’re away from tech. And that will give their brains everything they need. Surely that’s achievable?!
Is social media particularly addictive, versus other technology and device-use?
NATHAN:Absolutely – that’s its purpose. Humans are wired for interaction, and social media taps into that basic human desire for connection. Facebook didn’t set out to become a global phenomenon; it started simply to provide a space for connection, but they underestimated just how much that interaction would be valued. It wasn’t a marketing strategy that manipulated us into wanting that connection; the human brain loves interaction and being connected to other people, so give it that opportunity, and it’ll take it! Looking back, we might have predicted how popular Facebook would become, given how we’re wired.
Even when you’re using social media passively (like scrolling through Facebook or your Instagram feed), the dopamine hit you get is very similar to what a drug user gets when using cocaine. It’s instant gratification, and it sets the brain up to want more and more. In other words, it’s lighting up the same part of the brain where addiction is.
It really is a double-edged sword, though – for all the negative aspects of social media, there are positive ones as well. On the one hand, online bullying is real, and people can be really harsh and critical when they’re hiding behind a screen. However, on the other, if you were a kid in small-town New Zealand who felt different from your peers, you’d grow up pretty isolated with possible mental-health issues because of that isolation. But now you can go online and find that community of people just like you – people who validate you and encourage you …
How can parents help kids who are struggling with social media or developing an addiction to their devices?
NATHAN: There are resources available – a simple Google search will get you started. But at the end of the day, it’s about self-control. The Dunedin Multi-Disciplinary Study showed us that, out of all the things we measure for children (their IQ, etc.) the number one factor determining whether they do well or not is actually self-control.
When it comes to devices, you need to teach (and model!) kids from a young age the need for self-control. Teach them when to put down that device. You can establish that by having the two hours device-free, pausing periodically to rest your eyes, and creating device-free times and spaces in your home – like no devices at mealtimes or in your bedrooms. And most importantly, by modelling it yourself.
It’s just like with lollies – you can’t expect them to exercise self-control without enforcing it at first. But over time, they develop the ability to regulate their own use of sugar and other junk food. It’s the same with devices. You have to help them learn to self-regulate.
It’s a big thing for parents, isn’t it! Because we have to do a lot of restricting: keeping infants off devices for the first three years of life … managing the amount of screen time of younger kids and social media of older kids … helping them understand that there SHOULD be boundaries around device-use!
And while we’re teaching them healthy behaviours with their devices, we need to model the same with our own phone use! To show that we can actually cope without our devices and prioritise family time. We need to be prepared to put our own phones away.
GV NOTE: If parents begin to suspect that their kids are struggling with social media or are developing an addiction to their devices, there are resources available: check out www.imenough.org to get started.
NATHAN WALLIS HAS DEVELOPED A REPUTATION AS A LIVELY AND ENGAGING SPEAKER. HIS HUMOUR AND PLAIN LANGUAGE MAKE THE COMPLEX TOPIC OF NEUROSCIENCE BURST INTO LIFE! FIND HIM ON FACEBOOK AND LOOK FOR AN EVENT NEAR YOU …