How Social Media Affects the Teenage Brain

Social networks impact the still-developing teenage brain and also affect various systems. Learn more in today's article.
How Social Media Affects the Teenage Brain
Gorka Jiménez Pajares

Written and verified by el psicólogo Gorka Jiménez Pajares.

Last update: 28 February, 2023

The digital universe is vast. In addition, the younger segment of the population has imbibed information from the internet since childhood. The world wide web has become an essential element in the lives of millions of these small adults around the world, and, consequently, it’s worth taking a moment to ask how social networks affect the teenage brain, as this is a major stage of development.

The truth is that the teenage brain continues to develop well into its twenties and, although screens bring us closer to extraordinary worlds that we couldn’t even have imagined 10 years ago, they also have an impact on neurodevelopment. For example, when we visualize stimuli as powerful as receiving a like, brain systems such as reinforcement are activated intensely.

Nothing escapes screens anymore. We’ve never had so many screens. Not just to see the world, but to live our life.

-Gilles Lopovetsky-

The teenage brain addicted to likes

Few things are more reinforcing than social support, and it has never been easier to obtain than now. Currently, and on social networks such as Instagram, Tik-Tok, or Facebook, receiving social support is as simple as double-tapping on the screen.

To understand the characteristics of a behavioral addiction, we can look at the definition proposed by Professor Eduardo Fonseca, from the University of La Rioja, who states that addiction to social networks could be characterized by a dysfunctional use of the internet, in addition to the following:

Withdrawal symptoms may include difficulties falling asleep, anxious symptoms, or irritability in regard to the use of social networks. In this regard, it’s worth asking what brain mechanism is behind this powerful gravitational impulse toward the digital world in adolescents.

Addiction to social networks is characterized by the inability to control the desire to use a cell phone, anxiety, feelings of loss, withdrawal, and decreased productivity and participation in community life.

– Eduardo Fonseca –

The use of social networks has been associated with a higher prevalence of negative emotions (such as sadness, frustration, or envy). In this regard, adolescents can also become more impulsive.

Impulsiveness is the emission of behaviors without carrying out deep reflection previously, and its consequences can take different forms, such as sexting .

The neurobiology of social networks

Social media has its benefits.
When well-used and emotionally managed, social networks can have a positive effect.

Social networks are a springboard to accommodate our needs quickly. In this regard, they allow us to do the following:

  • Communicate who we are. We may provide both factual and fictitious information. Social networks can be real fantasy places where information has the potential to be distorted.
  • Know what others think. Knowing what judgments other people make about us can be very beneficial or very detrimental.
  • See how other people exchange messages and make judgments about what we’re seeing. Expressing opinions, judging, encouraging, admiring, but also humiliating and insulting have never been so easy.
  • Compare. Comparisons are hateful, but in the adolescent world, they’re vital. This is so because adolescents build their identity by comparing themselves with their peers.

These “gifts” offered by the digital world to adolescents have a neurobiological correlation, like all social interactions.

In fact, in the field of social networks, domains such as social cognition, reward processing, and self-referential cognition have been extensively studied. According to a study conducted by psychologist Raquel Aldea-Mateos, we can find some clues.

Social cognition

Through social cognition, we can understand how human beings process information referring to the interpersonal world.

In the field of social networks, adolescents make use of social cognition when they consider how many likes they’ll receive if they make a post with a certain photo or what responses friends may give to a story with a certain message.

Social cognition occurs with the use of social networks, as they force us to think about the mental states and motivations of others.

– Raquel Aldea-Mateos –

The brain areas that have been implicated in this regard are those related to the exchange and processing of social information.

When we receive social information and process the behaviors of other people on social networks, structures such as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, the anterior temporal lobes, the inferior frontal gyrus, and the posterior cingulate cortex are involved (Raquel Aldea-Mateos, 2017).

Self-referential cognition

Social networks are an extraordinary way to make yourself known to people around the world. It allows us to receive and transmit stories, situations, and experiences from both the past and the present.

At the same time, it allows us to project our future expectations. Every time an adolescent makes a judgment, expresses an opinion, or expresses how they feel or what they think, regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex are activated.

Social media use involves a great deal of self-referential thinking: Thinking about yourself and spreading opinions can trigger additional self-referential thinking.

– Raquel Aldea-Mateos –

Rewards processing

Social media is a quick and easy way to get social reinforcement in the form of likes. To better understand this concept, we’re going to use an interesting metaphor.

Imagine that every time you press a button, you get a small sum of money: Wow! You’ve obtained something valuable with a really low investment: The press of a button! The reward system works in a similar way. When we receive something very reinforcing that requires little effort, the brain asks us for more and more.

Likes become signs of success on social networks, which imply an improvement in reputation, are capable of activating our brain’s reward system, and make us consult these social networks over and over again.

– Raquel Aldea-Mateos –

Classically, three areas of the brain have been closely associated with the reward system: The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the ventral striatum, and the ventral tegmental area. Now let’s see how these regions can be activated:

  • When adolescents have a conversation via Instagram chat or exchange opinions in real-time on a Facebook wall, the following structures of the teenage brain come into play: The ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex. That is, they’re activated in information exchange interactions with other people. They’re also activated when teens receive a like.
  • Curiosity has been shown to strongly activate the ventral striatum. And what sparks more curiosity in teens than knowing who has given them a like or commented on the last photo that they uploaded to Instagram?
  • In addition, another region that’s powerfully involved in the brain reward system, the nucleus accumbens, has also been found to be related to receiving likes on social networks.

If the nucleus accumbens is active, there’s a 90% chance that the task being performed is a rewarding task.

– Raquel Aldea-Matos –

This is how social networks affect the teenage brain

Social networks arouse emotions.
The use of social networks can be very intense and arouse any type of emotion, from positive to negative.

Adolescence is the period of life in which a person tries to find their place in the world. As a result of this search, reorientations are produced on a social level because they try to provide answers to a multitude of questions: Who am I? What do I want to be? How can I get what I want in life?

In this period of life, the opinions of peers are more important than those of family members.

– Raquel Aldea-Matos –

In adolescence, intense changes take place on the neuronal level. Specifically, in a natural and genetically preprogrammed way, a “neuronal pruning” occurs in which neurons that are unnecessary are lost because they’re in excess.

This process of change is especially evident when we talk about the distribution and concentration of receptors for the neurotransmitter dopamine (a molecule involved in learning and reward). In this regard, adolescence is a critical period, as adolescents are, in biological terms, more sensitive to reward.

Intense activation has been found during adolescence in response to reward-relevant cues and in anticipation of reward.

– Raquel Aldea-Matos –

The immediate correlate of greater reward sensitivity is, as we’ve mentioned, risky behaviors. These range from the excessive consumption of substances such as alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs to risky sexual practices. The objective that drives these behaviors is usually greater acceptance by the peer group.

In addition, until about the age of 25, we lack a robust adult brain system to inhibit our impulses. This is the so-called cognitive control system, which is in charge of evaluating the information we receive from our environment in order to, consequently, adopt a series of behaviors that are as adapted as possible to the context that’s presented to us.

As a consequence of this maturation of the cognitive control system, executive abilities such as response inhibition, strategy planning, impulse regulation, and cognitive flexibility are improved.

– Raquel Aldea-Matos –

  • Pedrero, F. E. (2021c). Manual de tratamientos psicológicos: Infancia y adolescencia (Psicología) (1.a ed.). Ediciones Pirámide.
  • Ripalda Mora, J. T. (2022). Adicción a redes sociales y su relación con la imagen corporal en adolescentes (Bachelor’s thesis, Universidad Técnica de Ambato/Facultad de Ciencias de Salud/Carrera de Psicología Clínica).
  • Goldfarb, G. (2016). Bebés, niños, adolescentes y pantallas. Sociedad Argentina de Pediatría. PRONAP, 3(4), 123-38.

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