I went to a speech and hearing continuing education conference in February. One of the classes I attended was on Social Communication. Social Communication is NOT the use of social media, but rather traditional face to face conversation/interaction with others. Unfortunately, the decline in traditional communication due to the increase in social media, texting, gaming, etc. has had some very negative repercussions on the emotional and mental health of adults and especially children and teens whose brains are still developing.
The presenter who spoke listed several studies linking decreased traditional communication with increased rates of depression, suicide, anxiety, and other mental health problems in both children and adults. It was very interesting to learn that even MRI brain scans of children who were gaming/using social media, etc. for multiple hours a day verses kids who did not differed. What the researchers found were structural differences in the brains of the two groups. The following article: Teens: This is how social media affects your brain, by Susie East, for CNN, lists similar findings:
–Whether you’re on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, What’s App or Twitter, the way you communicate with friends today is changing.
Keeping in touch is no longer about face to face, but instead screen to screen, highlighted by the fact that more than 1 billion people are using Facebook every day.
Social media has become second nature — but what impact is this having on our brain?
In a recent study, researchers at the UCLA brain mapping center used an fMRI scanner to image the brains of 32 teenagers as they used a bespoke social media app resembling Instagram. By watching the activity inside different regions of the brain as the teens used the app, the team found certain regions became activated by “likes“, with the brain’s reward center becoming especially active.
When teens learn that their own pictures have supposedly received a lot of likes, they show significantly greater activation in parts of the brain’s reward circuitry,” says lead author Lauren Sherman. “This is the same group of regions responding when we see pictures of a person we love or when we win money.”
The teenagers were shown more than 140 images where ‘likes’ were believed to from their peers, but were in fact assigned by the research team.
Scans revealed that the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s reward circuitry, was especially active when teens saw a large number of likes on their own photos, which could inspire them to use social media more often.
As part of the experiment, participants were also shown a range of “neutral” photos showing things like food and friends, and “risky” photos depicting cigarettes and alcohol. But the type of image had no impact on the number of “likes” given by the teens. they were instead more likely to ‘like’
more popular photos, regardless of what they showed. This could lead to both a positive and negative influence from peers online.
Sherman believes these results could have important implications among this age group.
“Reward circuitry is thought to be particularly sensitive in adolescence,” says Sherman, “It could be explaining, at least in part, why teens are such avid social media users”
Adolescence is a period that is very important for social learning, which could explain why teens are often more tuned in to what’s going on in their respective cultures. With the rise of social media, Sherman thinks we may even be learning to read likes and shares instead of facial expressions.
Changing the brain
Dumontheil does, however, concur that social media is affecting our brain, particularly its plasticity, which is the way the brain grows and changes after experiencing different things.
“Whenever you learn something new or you experience something, it’s encoded in your brain, and it’s encoded by subtle changes in the strength of connections between neurons,” says Dumontheil.
For example, one study showed that the white matter in an adults’ brains changed as they learned how to juggle over a period of several months. “They found that if you scan [the brains of] adults before they learn how to juggle, and then three months later, you can see changes in the brain structure,” says Dumontheil.
Time spent on social media could, therefore, also cause the brain to change and grow.
Here’s some more interesting (and sad) statistics from the continuing ed class I took:
Socially: Teens now spend less time with friends, more time alone in their room, obsessed with staying connected on social media/gaming, like phones more than people
Emotionally: more depression, self-injury, more lonely, fear intimacy, anxious about feeling left out
2 out of 3 teens have an iphone.
Teens check their phones on average more than 80 times per day.
In the United States for children ages 10-14 years, death by suicide doubled from 2007-2014.
In a national sample, only 29% of children reported that their school provided a caring environment.
In a 2016 study, 20% of children are bullied on a regular basis.
I recently went on a mission trip to Honduras with my mom, dad, and daughter. I literally put my cell phone in a drawer and it stayed there all week. With the exception of calling home (using another phone) I used no technology or electronics- no social media, no computer, cell phone, or even TV. You know how much I missed it? None. I did miss my family members back home of course, but I didn’t miss social media, I didn’t feel less connected. In fact I felt more connected. I enjoyed talking with other team members. I loved trying to speak Spanish with the Hondurans. I loved listening to others tell stories about past mission trips or their lives or the ways God has worked in their life. I loved helping to paint a small Honduran church in the mountains of Rio Colorado, Honduras. I loved the one hour bus ride up and down the mountain every day passing out candy or toiletries to people walking along the way. I loved singing praise and worship songs on the bus. I loved giving a few haircuts while I was there. I enjoyed making new friends and getting to see the heartfelt expressions of God’s love in other’s actions whether in construction, praise and worship, photography, teaching, praying, making the kids laugh, and so much more. (See above photos.) I felt way more connected to people than I ever do scrolling through Facebook. In fact to be real, scrolling through Facebook at times makes me feel more alone!
So what does all this mean? While advancements in technology might be beneficial and convenient in some ways, in others it’s detrimental. My point is I think our culture is mistaken. Relationships/friendships aren’t always helped by technology. Technology isn’t all bad, but it should be a means to an end not the “end all be all”. It’s hurting us and our kids when we REPLACE conversations and true connections with our loved ones with video games, iPhones, computers, and social media. Do Facebook and iPhones really make us “feel more connected” to others? Or do they make us feel more isolated and alone? What about our children? Their brains are being rewired to connect emotionally to a phone or computer game instead of people. I’m pretty sure it’s the same with some adults, too. Okay…yes…I’ll admit it….the overuse of electronics is something I really don’t like and never have. Why? Because to me it takes away from true communication which is what our relationships are made of. This includes our friendships, our marriages, relationships with our kids, and if we aren’t careful our relationship with God. And if we don’t communicate what is actually left of a relationship/friendship? Just a thought.
Romans 12:1-2 Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
1 John 2:15-17 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever.
(PS. Special thanks and photo credit goes to Mr. James Flanders.)