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The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health of Adolescents

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Susceptibility of Human Nature
  3. Victims of Circumstance
  4. The Dopamine Dilemma
  5. Escalation and Consequences


Social media is not inherently pernicious; it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these tools have facilitated some incredible things such as discovering organ donors and connecting people from opposite sides of the world – positive, meaningful changes. But with the proliferation of social media, the moral basis these platforms were once built has visibly eroded.

As the race for our attention has become more competitive, we have seen these products and services become increasingly compelling, embodying manipulative psychological methods with ever growing disregard for the well-being of their users, more notably children and adolescents. Significant studies and sources have shed light on the potential detrimental impact social media use is having on our mental health, and trends suggest we’re wading deeper into dangerous waters. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that the number of teenage suicides in England and Wales had increased by 67% between 2010 and 2017. This is not just a national issue. Similarly, a CDC study in America published in 2018, found that teen suicide increased by 56% from 2007 to 2017. We have to ask ourselves – have we lost control?

A lot of us struggle to use social media in moderation, but I have chosen to use the 11-19 age group to help me explain why this phenomenon is such a growing concern. Through dialogue and critical examination, I intend to form a persuasive argument against the use of social media and use adolescents to help me demonstrate how deceitfully subliminal these products are, ensnaring us before we have a natural developed defence against them.

The Susceptibility of Human Nature

Part of normal human development requires the development of intrinsic human psychological characteristics such as social interaction and social support. The importance of these characteristics has been a fundamental part of human evolution and for hundreds of years, it has been profoundly reassuring to receive support from your community. Despite living in a more modern era – the digital age -, adolescents crave this same need for social interaction and support today – which makes them so susceptible to overuse of social media. Just in the past four years, we’ve seen dramatic shifts in digital screen time, and smartphone ownership. Research conducted by the Common-Sense Census found that in 2015, 67% of teens aged 13 – 18 had their own smartphone. By 2019, the number climbed to 84%.

When we take into consideration basic human nature, it is clear to see how most of us are under the influence of social media. When we break it down in essence, these services simply provide people with a vessel that enables them to interact and communicate with each other – which is a key ingredient of our being. Adolescents today are faced with the dilemma of unplugging and risking exclusion or being forced to use these contaminated infrastructures. This is one of the main reasons that make them so difficult to abandon, it feels like we’re not simply abandoning the platform as a standalone system – but abandoning relationships we have built in the real world. With continual accessibility to these loosely-regulated platforms, adolescents are prematurely exposed to possible inappropriate and distressing content. 65% of parents surveyed by Pew Research Lab said they worry about their kids spending too much time in front of screens, reiterating the cause for concern.

We are a gregarious race and most of us depend on human interaction for our health and mental wellbeing. One of the reasons why we are so susceptible to the compelling charms of social media is in part because they wield the ability to stimulate a part of our brain known as the ‘pleasure center’. The scientific term for this region of the brain is known as our ‘Nucleus Accumbens’. However, because it is so consistently connected with pleasure, Neuroscientists more commonly refer to it as the ‘pleasure center’. This region of the brain was originally discovered in 1954 by American Psychologist James Olds. In 2014, however, Dr Jonathan Britt presented more recent research to the Canadian Neuroscience Association, explaining that the pleasure center is responsible for the release of dopamine when our brains are stimulated. Dr Robert Sapolsky explains how ‘dopamine is not about pleasure, but about the anticipation of pleasure’ and how this anticipation is capable of eliciting goal-directed behaviour. This is important because adolescence is a developmental period characterized by increased reward-seeking behaviour. Dr Sapolsky also introduced the theory of only receiving rewards for our work sometimes and how this causes dopamine levels to soar even higher now that we have added the element of unpredictability into the equation.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information tested hypotheses about adolescent developmental changes in the striatum, a region of the brain implicated in reward processing, which illustrates Dr Sapolsky’s theory with supporting evidence. The investigations described in the review provide clear-cut evidence that the reward system undergoes massive changes during adolescence. Further, they show strong support for the hypothesis that the dopamine system is hyper-responsive, or over-engaged, in response to rewards during adolescence.

‘As best illustrated in work by Geier, 2009,’ different aspects of reward are paralleled by distinct neural sensitivity in adolescence, such that the initial presentation of a reward-predicting cue does not lead to the same level of hyperactivity in the brain as the anticipation of upcoming reward. ‘In our own work, human adolescents showed increased activation in the Nucleus Accumbens in response to high reward but showed diminished activation in this same region in response to low reward. Thus, what is rewarding to an adolescent will influence circuitry implicated in reward and risk-taking and, presumably, subsequent behaviour.’ The reason this is so problematic is adolescents’ reward systems are continuously being stimulated in conjunction with artificial popularity on social media, which drip-feed them micro doses of dopamine. Similarly, to an addiction, over time this will lead to the need for increased stimulation of the pleasure center and higher doses of dopamine to generate the same level of brain activation that a smaller dose once achieved, leaving them in states of deficit. Furthermore, it is this uncertainty of receiving the reward that entices humans even further – the magic of maybe. Social media platforms are aware of these psychological characteristics and cunningly incorporate this degree of unpredictability in their products to keep us hooked.

Adolescents are often insecure; many suffer from low self-esteem and body image issues, which is why this age group are especially susceptible to overuse – in order to receive peer validation – and through overuse, become exposed to aspects such as cyberbullying. Adolescents turn to social media seeking the flushes of pleasure we derive from the anticipation and reward of dopamine, to soothe psychological uncertainty. A consequence of this relentless over-stimulation, can result in mental exhaustion; causing them to neglect other facets of their lives, including seeing social relationships deteriorate, interference with the performance of important life roles and less life satisfaction.

So, when these tools strike the right neurological notes we can’t help but respond and behave a certain way; it’s just how we’re programmed.

Victims of Circumstance

So how do these brands manipulate our psychological needs to engage us for longer? In recent years a handful of tech companies have sought out to comprehend the psychology of how to make their products as addictive as possible. Facebook founding president Sean Parker recently came forward and admitted ‘that thought process was all about how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible… God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.’. It is deeply unsettling to hear some of the world’s most powerful technocrats’ recognition that younger minds are more malleable and still consciously neglect the potential detrimental effect these platforms could have. Although Parker considers himself a conscientious objector of social media now, the damage may already have been done. According to a recent report by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping youth, parents and schools navigate media, nearly 62% of teens spend more than four hours a day on social media and 29% use screens more than eight hours a day.

What we must realise is these companies bear the influence to hire teams of behavioural scientists and highly skilled engineers. Artificial intelligence models are then optimised using input from these specialists, to harvest an array of personal data such as time spent looking at content. This allows them to use our engagement against us to predict which content we most likely want to see in the future. Organisations of this magnitude, also have the power to run tests and launch features in controlled, sub contained networks which allow them to see what the usage will look like in relation to the broader user base. Through these processes of micro managed trial and error, these teams of engineers can determine which features are the most habit forming and orchestrate us into subconscious behavioural addictions. Aza Raskin, the inventor of infinite-scroll, noted how many designers are driven to create addictive app features by the business models of the companies that employ them – “you’re going to start trying to invent new ways of getting people to stay hooked.”, It is the creation of features such as this, which allow these companies to orchestrate us into bottomless, addictive feedback loops.

In Irresistible, Alter gives the example of a slot machine paying out $1.00 from a spin that cost $1.50. Despite the fact that the net effect of this spin was a loss of fifty cents, when accompanied by flashing lights and catchy tunes, we still enjoy all the positive feedback that usually follows a win. Natasha Dow Schull, a cultural anthropologist who studied gambling machines and how they hooked humans for over a decade, explained that this was what gambling experts refer to as a “loss disguised as a win”. Mike Dixon, a psychologist has studied these disguised losses. Dixon, and several colleagues, hooked up a group of novice gamblers to electrodes while they played a slot machine game called ‘Lobstermania’. After each spin, a machine measured changes in how much the students were sweating – a sign that the event was stimulating. Lights flashed and bells rang the same whether the spin represented a true win, or a loss disguised as a win. ‘The students sweated more when they won than when they lost – but they sweated just as much when their losses were disguised as wins as when those wins were genuine.’

Dr Robert Sapolsky also referred to the social engineering in Las Vegas gambling; which exemplifies addictive principles that are used universally because of how susceptible we are to manipulation in this realm. We can see the use of these same principles being applied to social media more deceitfully. Just like when an arm is pulled on a slot machine to spin its mechanical reels, each new post on social media initiates its own mini cliff-hanger accompanied with the unpredictability of a psychological surge. Similar to slot machines, it is, in part, this thrill of uncertainty that makes social media so enticing to adolescents – just as how the participants in Dixon’s ‘Lobstermania’ experiment enjoyed the rewards that were unpredictable that much more. Humans are wired for closure and so, when we are in states of anticipation (caused by, for example, posting a photo) our minds are dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction causes frustration and triggers the pursuit of resolution, and it is this pursuit of resolution for validation that reels us deeper into the matrix of problematic social media use.

These behaviours can very quickly turn into behavioural addictions, adolescents, in actual fact, are just ‘victims of circumstance’. Social media capitalises on the vulnerability of younger minds and how difficult it can be for adolescents to abandon the platform in fear of exclusion, which, in recent years, has drastically been worsened with the option of constant accessibility. These double-binds with technology have been accentuated with the advancement of Smartphones and at the moment, the forecast points to a crisis.

The Dopamine Dilemma

Over-exposure to social media, consisting of falsified highlight reels of perfection, contributes to instinctive social comparison, sparking feelings of inadequacy. A study that was published by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology found that between 2009 and 2017, rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60%. The increases were nearly as steep among those ages 12 to 13 (47%). From these statistics, we can infer that it is these negative frames of mind, caused by the overuse of social media that can, in turn, lead to low morale, poor self-esteem and mental health issues.

Escalation and Consequences

Teenage boys and girls spend their digital media time in different ways: boys spend more time gaming, while girls spend more time texting and using social media, particularly apps like Snapchat and Instagram. Naturally, the more digital time adolescents spend on these platforms, the more they are exposed to the negative effects that can come with use, one issue that has, understandably, began to receive a lot of attention is cyberbullying. ‘Research has shown significant associations between bullying experiences in childhood and adolescence and an array of psychological and mental health problems including anxiety, depression, psychosis, and even suicide.’ To support this, the statistics for suicide and depression rates are higher among teenage girls and have increased at a steeper rate over the last decade; The World Health Organisation (WHO) actually reported suicide to be the second leading cause of teenage girls’ deaths and the third leading cause of teenage boys’ deaths – which reinforces the link between the mental health crisis claims and social media use.

Unless something is done to address the root cause, there is no reason to suggest that rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among teens and young people won’t continue to increase. 

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