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Social Media and the Teenage Brain

After nine months of homework, quizzes and tests, summer break is a welcome reprieve for many teenagers. There’s plenty of time to hang out with friends, play sports or go to the movies. But as many parents are well aware, today’s teenagers spend a lot of their free time glued to their phones. In fact, one report found that the average teen spends 9 hours a day consuming media, compared to less than 10 minutes a day talking to their parents. While it’s important to stay social once school’s out, being too connected to a device can actually make a teen more likely to be depressed.

The science of social media & the brain
Between grades, cliques and changing hormones, high school is already a rough time. Now imagine all of that pressure online and available 24/7. A recent study by UCLA used MRI scans to see how teenagers’ brains react to “likes” on social media. The study showed a correlation between receiving a “like” and the part of the brain that makes you feel rewarded. This can create a feedback loop in which teens crave more positive reinforcement from their peers. If not careful, that rush of instant gratification can make using social media addictive—and potentially dangerous to their emotional development.

Self-esteem in the summer
On social media, photos of vacations and skimpy clothing can ignite jealousy and deflate a teen’s own confidence. And without a regular schedule, too much free time can lead to feelings of isolation and low self-worth.

How you can help
Social media probably won’t go away anytime soon. But as a parent, there are a few things you can do to create more structure and keep your child engaged once school is out:

  • Try to maintain normal sleeping hours—too much or too little sleep can be a symptom of depression
  • Create a daily to-do list with simple tasks to help kids feel accomplished
  • Encourage social physical activities, such as going for a swim or attending yoga classes with friends
  • Switch up summer reading lists and try listening to audiobook versions instead
  • Don’t forget about down time—it’s normal for teens to want time to themselves but watch out for signs of withdrawal

Worried that your teen might still be feeling down? Schedule a doctor visit to make sure there are no underlying medical conditions before consulting a behavioral therapist. Find a provider here.