Through continued brain development and increased sensitivity to dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, pleasure and reward), adolescents are more likely to craving for reward-based experiences. And, because their prefrontal cortex (the field associated with understanding, assessment and decision making) is still in development, social interactions greatly shape impulse control and critical thinking.
In the past, we often viewed them as risky behaviors like driving fast or trying to fit in to gain peer approval. But in the age of smartphones, social media, followers and likes, reward-seeking behaviors in teens are increasingly associated with online approval.
In 2018, Instagram has more than 1 billion users worldwide, and more than half (over 500 million) are daily users. Of these, around 60% are women under the age of 34. It is not a coincidence. In fact, the software was designed to keep them engaged for longer and come back for more. Endless scrolling, markup, notifications, and live stories exploit the fear of missing out (FOMO) that gives teens so much anxiety. Or like We The Internet posed in a YouTube video, the site has an “artificial dependency”.
So here are some things you need to know about what social media – and Instagram in particular – is doing to the brains of young women.
– Compared to Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, it seems that Instagram leads to more comparisons between ourselves and others. This, in turn, contributes to more anxiety and depression due to feelings of inadequacy. Research suggests this is due to increased exposure to “idealized” images of other women, couples and lives in general. Increased exposure is linked to decreased happiness with one’s own life.
– Functional MRIs have shown that the number of likes (which are often fake, bought, or made) an Instagram post changes the appeal of that photo to viewers. For example, when girls see a popular image, their brains (probably the nucleus accumbens, or reward circuit) instinctively associates it with being better, whatever the content. Their brains literally can’t help but prefer images that have more likes only images with fewer likes. As researchers at UCLA In other words, teens react to what they see as “approvals” of content.
– Thanks to smartphone access, 92% of teens say they go online every day. Of these, 24% admit to being online “almost constantly”. And, according to a Pew Research Center study, usage is fairly even across races and cultures. However, it was found that African American girls use smartphones more than their white and Hispanic peers (85% vs. 71%). But all this time online is changing the way young women perceive social approval and what it takes to be ‘loved’.
– Visual sites like Instagram attract more girls than boys, who seem prefer video games and games to social media. But what this introduces is a very different engagement with imagery. For example, filters, makeup, lighting, angles and pose mean that the images constantly provided to young girls are not based on reality. But unlike a video game where the user knows the images are fake, Instagram posts confuse fact and fiction.
– Instagram influencers are known to get paid up to $ 1 million per post. And the average American spends 6-10 hours a day on social media being offered products and images that have not been proven to be effective or real. But in many cases, they don’t know what is wrong or what is promotional advertising. And at a young age, the ability to differentiate is almost impossible. In fact, a Stanford study concluded that young people do not know when they are exposed to false information on social platforms or how to differentiate credibility.
Whether you are a parent or a young person who wants to spend less time on your smartphone, there are many reasons to decrease the use of social media. But it’s also important to understand that many of the negative implications of using social media, such as loneliness and anxiety, are a direct result of brain development. We live in a new world and we all learn as we go. We just have to work harder to find out which feedback loops give us information, and the quality and credibility of that information.