Screen time and social media, a curse for adolescents’ developing brains?

Last update: February 20, 2024
Reading time: 7 minutes
By Brain Matters

As a millennial, I remember that when I was in high school, our mobile phones were not so much of a distraction. During breaks we would have conversations or play cards to kill time. However, my sister who is a typical gen Z’er and 6 years younger than I am, really struggles with concentrating on homework and is easily distracted by her phone as soon as one of her friends sends her a snapchat. She is not the only one. Literally all of her friends are sharing the same struggle and apps like “Forest” are nowadays necessary for youngsters to keep them focused on their school work. I started wondering, is this really a difference between generations? And if so, is this really corrupting adolescents’ minds?

For most adolescents, their phone functions as their life line in order to stay in touch with friends and families. Opening that snapchat with a funny picture of your friend whose face is morphed into that of a monkey, is for a short amount of time the dopamine shot that you were craving. However, in the long run this short period of gratification is not enough and you end up checking your phone every 5 minutes. Therefore concerns among researchers regarding the influence of screen time on the developing brains are rising. Therefore, this article will focus on the effects of screen time and the use of social media on the development of adolescent’s brains.

Screen time and its role in adolescence

Adolescence is the developmental period in between childhood and adulthood. During this period, the brain undergoes massive changes influenced by several biological and environmental factors, with screen time and social media being two of them. These changes can be best explained by the “dual-systems model”. In early adolescent years the emotional-motivational system important for you craving to open your friend’s Snapchat matures at the beginning of adolescence. This in contrast to the control system important for stopping yourself from checking your phone and therefore (mostly found in frontoparietal circuits) matures at the end of adolescence. This time gap in maturation of these two brain areas shows us that in adolescents emotions are less damped by our cognitive control (top-down control) system. This is where Internet or social media comes into play; adolescents seek short-term gratifications over long-term gratifications, since they cannot resist the desire of going on their phone. Moreover, adolescents are less influenced by their parents and are more drawn to spend time with friends. Hence, the internet is an accessible way which provides many opportunities for adolescents to connect with peers as well as to engage in highly gratifying activities such as watching YouTube videos or online gaming.

Effects of approval and appreciation via Instagram on the adolescent brain

Since as you just have read, adolescents are really vulnerable to the opinion of their peers, in 2018, a study by Sherman and colleagues investigated brain areas involved in providing “likes” to other people’s pictures on Instagram among 58 eighteen-year-olds by making use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The participants were asked to choose between “liking” the picture or not. The fMRI showed increasing activation of the reward circuitry in the brain (e.g. striatum and ventral tegmental area – VTA) when the participant decided to “like” a certain picture. Additionally, these same brain areas are involved as soon as a participant their pictures are “liked” by others. The researchers therefore concluded that providing and receiving “likes” on Instagram correlates with higher activity in brain areas involved in the processing of rewards as well as prosocial behavior.

Effects of social media on concentration and impulse control in adolescents

As already described in the introduction, this “digital generation” seems to struggle more with concentrating and focusing compared to older generations. This is confirmed in a survey among high school teachers from the X and Y generation* who indicated that generation Z students had poorer time management, unplanned study behavior and disrupted class often. When focusing on changes in the functional connectivity, when comparing adolescent’s addicted to the internet to healthy adolescents, Lin and colleagues showed a positive correlation between the level of Internet addiction and a decrease in connectivity in various white matter tracts (orbitofrontal tracts, anterior cingulate cortex, corpus callosum, front-occipital fasciculus etc.). These white matter tracts form the important highways of the brain, and a decrease in the connectivity between brain areas via these tracts results in a reduction in among others concentration, impulse inhibition etc. Let me take the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) as an example. This brain region and its connections are important for you to keep your eyes on the price. However in the case of decreased functional connectivity between the ACC and its connected hubs, a reduction in one’s cognitive control is the consequence which results in you opening that snapchat even when you know you have to study. To illustrate this, Li and colleagues gathered fMRI data from 18 interned-addicted and 23 control participants all aged 15 years old who had to perform a Go-stop task. An example of such a task would be that the participants lying in the MRI scanner have to press the button showing an arrow pointing in the same direction as the arrow presented on a screen. In the case of a “stop sign”, they have to refrain themselves from pressing any button. Comparison of the fMRI results indicated that in the case of the Internet-addicted adolescents they showed that these participants had a decreased strength of the connections between frontal and basal ganglia pathways which are known to be involved in response inhibition. These individuals seem to fail to inhibit their response, because they are not able to fully activate the right connections between the necessary brain areas, and therefore inhibit their automatic response. I would like to point out that in the case of the described studies, the diagnosis of Internet addiction was based only on self-reports rather than a clinical interview. Moreover, it seems as if these results cannot be found back in healthy adolescents, but only in Internet-addicted adolescents, so it remains to be seen in future studies if generation Z healthy adolescents really suffer from less time management skills due to functional connectivity changes in the brain. 

Effects of social media on social skills among adolescents

One last interesting finding regarding the effect of social media on today’s youngsters, is the idea among researchers that face-to-face social skills are declining within this generation. This concern has risen in attention, since several talks or books have touched upon this problem. Trends are observed in literature regarding the fact that since teenagers more socialize online, they risk putting less value on their ‘real world’ selves which makes them more vulnerable to impulsive and suicidal behavior. Moreover, an additional concern is the fact that time spent in front of screens by adolescents replaces time for face-to-face interactions and therefore time spent to learn these skills. Researchers actually found that the more time an adolescent spends on the Internet, this resulted in a decrease in their sociability, communication with family members and even an increase in depression and loneliness. So it seems that social media has made it easier these days to stay in touch with each other, however the downside of this form of contact is that face-to-face skills among adolescents declines with all its consequences. However, the evidence is limited. In fact, research that specifically compared children’s social skills before and after the internet boom has never taken place upon this point. Moreover, social skills are hard to measure and there is no consensus among researchers on how to do so. 

To end on a positive note

All in all, based on these results of neuroimaging studies, we can observe a trend in a sense that screen time affects our brain. However, we should not forget that we are currently not able to draw definite conclusions about this matter, since imaging techniques like fMR are not refined enough yet tand currently there is heterogeneity regarding measuring social skills or internet addiction. However, what is more important is that the Internet and social media have brought us positive things as well. In 2013, a study already showed that children in the age range of 0 to 8 years old also experience a lot of positive effects due to the use of the Internet. Several studies showed that the more these children used the internet, the better their verbal abilities as well as academic performance became. Moreover, the more time they spent on the Internet, the more these children already got acquainted with using the Internet to broaden their scope of knowledge which in adolescent years resulted in a higher political engagement, and a lower risk of experiencing negative effects as described above. 

All in all, I think it is also important to not forget that while future research should take the above things into account, positive aspects of screen-use among adolescents such as building and maintaining social connections, learning, and social support should not be refuted!

*People belonging to the X generation are born between 1965 and 1980, and they are also called “the babyboomer generation”. Children of this generation belong to generation Y (also called “Millennials”) and are born between 1980 and 1999. 

Author: Joyce Burger

Image: Joyce Burger


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