In 1994, Mary Pipher, a clinical psychologist, wrote what would become an iconic book, Reviving Ophelia, about adolescent girls. At that time, she found girls “confused, engaged in high-risk behaviors and in conflict with their parents—especially their mothers.” What no one really understood, she found, was that girls were “drowning in a violent, misogynist culture, where MTV, Hollywood and pop music determined the values and made the laws.”
Twenty-five years later, she revisited the subject. Now, she says, most girls report positive relationships with their families and say their mothers are their best friends. That shift reflects societal changes, Pipher says—not necessarily in a good way. As the real world grows more difficult to navigate, she says, girls increasingly turn toward the security of family. They’re less likely than girls in the 90s to drink alcohol, get pregnant, use drugs, or even date. Almost no one runs away from home. But it’s because “Life in the outside world looks too frightening for that.”
Times change, causal factors change. Pipher notes that after 1993, when girls’ suicide rates were the highest ever, the rates began dropping steadily. Until 2007. What happened then? The iPhone launched.
It initiated a massive metamorphosis. But while what became “social media” has changed so many things, children still basically develop in the same way. They still go through recognizable stages: At age 5 and 6, for instance, they’re learning social skills, like giving praise and apologizing for unintentional mistakes. At 7 and 8, they begin to show more moral development and are ready for more complex coping skills. As they move into adolescence, they begin testing the boundaries with risky behavior; they push for more independence and seek acceptance in peer groups.
That trajectory of social-emotional development is normal and expected, but a child can be thrown off by all kinds of adverse experiences. And those adverse experiences can be magnified by media. An American adolescent spends roughly six to nine hours a day on media-related activities, excluding home- and schoolwork. Now add in the adolescent’s need to belong and it can be a toxic combination. Crone et al. argue that “adolescents are highly sensitive to acceptance and rejection through social media.” Their heightened emotional sensitivity, unrealistic self-expectations, “peer obedience,” and protracted development of cognitive control may make them specifically reactive to emotion-arousing media.
All those hours on devices—something has to give, and for some teens, it’s sleep time. In one study, teens who spent three or more hours a day on electronic devices were 28% more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep. Lack of sleep affects mood: Teens who don’t sleep enough are almost three times more likely to report more depressive symptoms, and those with sleep debt have a higher risk of suicidal ideation.
Heavy social media use increases reports of unhappiness by 56% and increases depression risk by 27%. One meta-analysis found an independent direct association between heavy social media/Internet use and increased suicide attempts, although adjusting for cyberbullying victimization and sleep disturbance reduced the strength of the association.
The brain regions involved in many social aspects of life undergo extensive changes during adolescence, and social influences are particularly potent. One study found, for instance, increased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex and insula after participants in a virtual game experienced “exclusion”—and stronger activity in the dorsal anterior cortex in adolescents and young adults who have a history of being socially excluded.
Thanks to hormonal changes, a regular day in any adolescent’s life can be full of ups and downs. In addition, the brain systems are “plastic” (growing connections, “pruning” them to be more efficient, and consolidating). While this is going on, the limbic system—brain regions associated with emotion, motivation, and behavior—is in full throttle, as is the reward circuitry of the brain, making peer approval very compelling. All of these changes contribute to intense feelings and impulsivity, as well as a reduced ability to “hit the brakes.” The limbic system has been linked to the extreme self-consciousness many teens feel. It’s also very sensitive to the “likes” of social media. In one study, photos with more likes stimulated greater brain activity in the reward center. When viewing photos of risky behavior ostensibly taken by peers, adolescents showed reduced activation of the cognitive control network.
In addition to social media, “regular” media can have a profound—even lasting—impact. Time spent watching TV, for instance, has been linked to socio-emotional and physical health problems in adulthood. In one study, television viewing in adolescence (more than 2 hours a day) was significantly associated with adult diagnoses of anxiety, even after adjustment for covariates. Moreover, their findings may be an underestimate, the researchers say, because the cohort in the study grew up during the 1970s and ’80s—and the media environment today is vastly different.
Mass media have been implicated in the emergence of disordered eating behavior and mood disorders in adolescents. In one study, it wasn’t only seeing favorite actors with “ideal bodies” that influenced young people, but also their peers’ opinions: The “well-known negative effects” of the media on both boys and girls may be indirectly transmitted by friends’ perceptions of media characters. For boys, that was the only statistically significant factor that predicted depression, anxiety, eating-disordered behavior, and body uneasiness. Girls, though, were also influenced by their own desire to be similar to media characters and perceived discrepancy between their body image and that of the characters—the researchers say this suggests that girls internalize media messages about the ideal body, something that wasn’t evident in the data from boys.