This is Your Brain on Facebook: Social Media and Teens’ Emotional Health

Social media are an integral part of the social landscape of teens today. This seems to have happened overnight, and now we are faced with some difficult questions: What does it mean if teens spend more time interacting via social media and less time interacting face to face? Should we be concerned that teens post suicidal thoughts on blogs rather than talking directly to parents and friends – or just feel relieved that they are telling someone? Is there a problem with the fact that, for many teens, it seems ok to break up a romantic relationship over text?

The short answer to these types of questions is: We have no idea. Scientists know next to nothing. Policy makers are shooting in the dark. Pundits and talking heads and techno-sages have a lot to say, but no basis upon which to draw conclusions. Yet these questions are incredibly important given the growing ubiquity of social media.

As a scientist and mother of two, I am particularly interested in the impact of computer-mediated social exchanges on kids’ social and emotional development. I think this is a major public health and social policy issue that has only begun to be addressed – at least in a way that is backed up by scientific evidence. Some may say these questions are alarmist, but others may ask why it’s taken us so long to ask them. Whatever the case, we need answers.

My intuition is that computer-mediated interactions and social media will create a world in which lots of good things can happen – social movements can blossom, people who feel lonely can feel more connected, and people who already have a rich social network can better stay in touch with their loved ones. And things I can’t even imagine will be the norm when my young children are teens. My own 3-year-old is already completely at ease with technology, and I am quite certain that he will find it natural to connect with others in computer-mediated ways.

But my intuition is also that something has fundamentally changed, and that social media represent a way of connecting that is different from how we evolved. We evolved to talk to each other face to face, to share emotions in real time, and to interpret even extremely subtle signs of emotion in the faces, voices, and bodies of our social partners. These experiences are also the basis upon which our “emotional brains” develop normally. That is, without these experiences, we cannot develop the empathy, emotional sensitivity, and ability to control our emotions that are fundamental to being human.

If social media increasingly replace face-to-face interactions, then kids today may have fewer opportunities to build these basic social and emotional skills. Skills like empathy require that we are emotionally sensitive enough to see that someone is upset, that we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes, and that we offer support. If we are busy posting, texting, and tweeting our thoughts and experiences, do we have less time and ability to support others and in turn receive support?

A recent study suggests perhaps so. Published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior, the team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. By the study’s physiological measures, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all. The authors concluded, in an interview with Wired – “people still need to interact the way we evolved to interact.”

It’s very important to note that interacting in ways that differ from how we interacted a hundred thousand or even a hundred years ago isn’t a bad thing. We didn’t evolve to drive cars, or have penicillin. And the modern world is unthinkable without a vast array of technological advances that are evolutionarily new.

But some think that social media may indeed be derailing our emotional evolution. A survey study by Konrath and colleagues published in 2010 suggests that college students today (“Generation Me”) have less empathy and are more selfish than students 20 years ago. Researchers conjecture that social media may be the culprit…. but there is little direct evidence to support this.

In my lab, we are trying to unravel such possibilities. For example, in a study we will soon submit for publication, we showed that college students who use more social media are less emotionally sensitive to faces – they don’t interpret emotional facial expressions as accurately as those who use less social media.

In this study, we used a computerized facial morphing task in which neutral faces gradually “morph” into mad, sad, or happy faces. This task is meant to measure emotional sensitivity, because to do the task well you need to be able to correctly identify very subtle signs of emotion in the face. We found that people who are frequent Facebook users (more than 8 hours a week) made more mistakes when they were asked to identify happy faces than infrequent users (less than 4 hours a week).

So, this finding might mean that by using Facebook frequently, we are becoming less sensitive to emotion – happiness in particular. But it could also mean that people who are already a little less sensitive to subtle emotional expressions choose to use more social media. Importantly, these are correlational data, so we can’t draw strong conclusions about cause and effect.

For this reason, it is crucial to conduct research that can actually get at cause and effect. I have just such a project in the works. The plan is to follow teens from the time they are 13 until they are 17. I’ll track what types of social media they use, how often they use them, why they use them, and if they prefer social media to face-to-face interactions for doing certain things (like sharing emotional experiences). Then I’ll test how these patterns of social media use directly influence changes in teens’ emotional strengths and weaknesses over time– their empathy, emotional sensitivity, their brain functioning, and how well they control their emotions.

By scientifically tracking teens over time, we can start to unravel whether social media drive our emotional lives, whether social media just reflect the way we already are, or whether both are the case. Without research that considers all these possibilities, we just can’t know which is true.

Social media are social tools like any other, right, neither good nor bad? – happy people can use them to share ideas and experiences; troubled people can seek out healthy or destructive social connections; bad people can find victims; and the socially awkward can find a safe haven.

Or maybe social media are very special indeed, and will have a profound impact on how we live as social and emotional beings. This is the question I am most interested in. I think we all embrace the idea that social media will change us in some way. And now, we must spend time, energy and resources to figure out exactly how.

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24 Comments

  1. BE

     /  March 13, 2012

    Great article! Thought provoking and insightful.

    Social networking and technology seems at times to be causing teens; 20 somethings and adults to forego manners and connectiveness by taking advantage of the quickness of a text or email or post on a social network site.

    The written thank you note or personal call is now an email, text or post; birthday greetings are texted or posted; and presents may be acknowledged via text instead of a live thank you or written note. The interpersonal connection of a live voice or a handwritten note is getting lost in lieu of saving time or plain laziness and with it the manners we once knew.

    Reply
  2. Great point! This is a consequence of the technology that I agree is really important to consider! I wonder if part of this is that we’re moving so quickly to “connect” that the balance is shifting towards superficial exchanges and away from deeper consideration of the other person’s perspective or feelings.

    Does this mean we will start being less empathic towards others, in addition to less polite? This is a question I think a lot of psychologists and social scientists are getting interested in. I think parents and teachers are thinking about it a lot, too.

    Reply
    • Not knowing the effect and impact of social media and at the same time having to deal with the fenomenon at home and in the classroom is a challenge in The Netherlands, where about 76% of the teens (10-17 years) – ranking no 1 among their peers in Europe – uses a smartphone to connect with social media. Your blog adresses neccessary questions – as I do as an educationalist and parent on my blog Pedagoogle – so I was happy to reblog it at the other end of the ocean.

      Reply
  3. BE

     /  March 21, 2012

    I certainly do and find myself getting irked when a present is acknowledged by a family member via a thank you text. just too easy somehow and no thought needs to be given…

    Reply
  4. Being a computer geek from the earliest dark ages of computers I’ve spent my entire life with technology so it’s no big deal, but the area you’re questioning is a bit more interesting. When I started I was doing things 1 in a million people did (a few things even the first ever) and today all this is common, just a few bucks at BestBuy and people have stuff I couldn’t have even dreamed of.

    Not to talk about myself, I wanted an intro to an experience with 20-somethings that might be interesting. Decades ago I was actually working in Japan where texting was the rage and none of the U.S. kids had ever heard of it. texting particularly seemed suitable for the conditions there (literally using texts to locate each other in a crowd, plus the strong social conformity that is Japanese culture). When I next really noticed it was once adopted in the U.S. that groups of kids would stand around in malls, in a circle, each texting someone else, looking for “what’s happening”. The circle would break up and a new one would congeal elsewhere with the kids still texting some other kids at distance.

    But most interesting, at least to me, was at a family gathering with my 20-somethings nephews who rarely talk to anyone and simultaneously text away (after being at a family party where I, the computer geek, am the *only* one not looking at a screen, I broke down and starting doing the same thing). The two guys were texting away, chuckling occasionally and I finally noticed they were actually texting each other! Sitting 2′ apart, they communicate by texting. Weird I thought so I attempted to imagine why they were doing this. My best hypothesis was some others, distant, were involved in the conversation and then their communication technique made sense. Of course, I was just extrapolating my own experience since my job involved working with people in multiple sites in the world, from a conference room with a few local people in it.

    So I asked them. Well, my hypothesis was wrong (and all the less likely, to me, alternative hypotheses were also wrong). So they told me. One of them wanted to say something to the other, but noticed, easily seeing him, that he was engrossed in some other text and not wanting to interrupt that process with a verbal interjection instead he texted because the text was actually less intrusive and asynchronous. Obvious once I thought about it, but not obvious at first (I actually prefer email to phonecalls in work exactly because it is asynchronous, I can talk when I want to and my recipient can listen when it’s convenient for them (or not, which is less irritating to have emails ignored than verbal communication). So there may be some very subtle issues not clearly visible about why people (kids or others) use it.

    I assume you know the show,
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/etc/synopsis.html,
    which seemed very dated to me but nonetheless was just recently shown here in the hinterland (electrons slow down in flyover states). The provocative thought there was that humanity has always gained something and lost something with new “technology”. The example presented that before printing presses minstrels memorized texts and and came and performed them for audiences that couldn’t read anyway. Yes, books were faster, cheaper, and more wide spread and quickly replaced the oral traditions but something was lost of the older experience.

    I personally believe, as opinion only since as you point out no one actually knows, that social media will, on the whole, be a net negative. I think it takes the old teenage fears of lack of popularity to a new extreme; now popularity can be explicitly measured by counts of followers or likeme’s and failure to have a particular threshold number will be the new definition of geek and in your line of work a whole new set of anxieties.

    But the main loss, I believe, is less on social side than professional (or at least “idea” side). Just having finished 4 years with a bunch of 20-something programmers in China, who as trendy as you can imagine, I compared them to the very first 20-somethings I had working for me decades ago (when I was a lot closer to a 20-something myself). There absolutely was a shallowness in their thinking. There was an ADHD-like tendency to resolve all issues, hard or trivial (and they often didn’t recognize the difference) in 30 seconds. It wasn’t just their inexperience, it was their entire pattern of thinking, that every issue got only seconds of their thought, and almost always the first answer that came to mind was chosen, rather than creating lists of alternatives, analyzing them, and picking the best. These kids were just as smart (and not smarter, at least compared to 70s/80s 20-something U.S. kids) and as well “educated” (in a trade school kind of way) but they had relatively poor problem solving techniques, or at least solution optimization. I don’t think this was somehow Chinese culture (although everything there is incredibly fast-paced) and I’m prepared to connect it to social technology. One thing I noticed was that having to speak to me in English really slowed them down and actually tended to make them more thoughtful (once just asking one of them to explain what they were doing triggered the thought in their own head how to solve a problem that had plagued them for weeks). [I don't have any comparable observation about recent young U.S. software engineers, since regrettably we've decided they don't need jobs and cost too much so there aren't any of them for me to know]

    Anyway I’ll be curious to see what you find out and I do believe it is definitely a subject worthy of study since obviously it’s not going away and will just get more intense.

    Reply
  5. In terms of your plan for study, ” to follow teens from the time they are 13 until they are 17″, I suspect one problem is that other factors will influence usage of social media, such as economic or other background factors, possibly gender (at least as function of age), and degree of “geeky-ness” may play a larger role. Having gone to college with a lot kids that were not typically socially adjusted I can promise you’ll find some socially disconnected kid who doesn’t use social media much and simultaneously is socially awkward, so his level of empathy will have nothing to do with social media. Likewise would deeply religious teens be using social media the same way as teens with the more typical concerns.

    So how do you discriminate in the study which factors matter, presumably some multivariate statistical analysis, but it may be hard to find a sample of kids, esp. if randomly selected. Drug studies are often skewed because of the candidate selection and so the later trials contradict the earlier results simply due to much larger sample, thus including a few of the outliers. It’s hard to imagine “average” kids having much difference in their patterns of usage of social media since it is virtually obligatory to any “normal” teen.

    Reply
    • You’re right, it’s very difficult to track all the other factors that might influence social media useage, but if we are successful in radomly sampling, then those sources of “error” will be randomly distrubuted. We’ll also try to measure some of theses factors and account for them in our models.

      We actually want to get the “average” kid in this study because what I really want to be able to test is whether even non-extreme use of social media gradually influence how we process emotional and social information on the level of the brain, and whether these changes start having a causal influence (over time) on how socially competent these teens are – for better and worse. I anticipate a lot of strengths could emerge from social media use. I think there could be more variability than we might expect, especially because a lot of young people seem to be overwhelmed by the demands of social media and are starting to drop out (e.g., take themselves off Facebook).

      But one premise that my work is grounded in is that subtle emotional information exchanges (e.g., reading emotion in the face or voice, communicating your emotions effectively) are a fundemental way in which we wire our social brains. That is, these experiences are the bedrock of more complex skills, like being able to sociallly connect, regulate emotions, etc,… You see this especially in infant development – infant brains, from the moment they are born, are preferentially tuned to human faces. Infants very early on imitate human faces, seek to make sense of the social world by looking at their caregivers’ faces for their take on a situation, I could go on…. why is this? Probably because there is something fundamental about how we evolved that REQUIRES these abilities. So, being able to interpret human emotion signals is not a small thing (indeed, many disorderes like autism are characterized by disruptions in this). And if social media use could shift this sensitivity even an iota then it’s at least worth noting; and testing whether there are implications of these subtle shifts. There certainly may not be, but what if there are…..

      I’m not saying social media are making us more autistic (although I’ve seriously considered writing a blog post on that possibility! :-)) I’m not even saying that individual variability in this is problematic (people who self-select into people or non-people fields probably are on different ends of this spectrum). But again, I think we need to ask these questions. I also am interested in how for people, like those with autism, who have specific social-emotional deficits, social media may be the best thing ever. I think every autistic child who is high functioning enough should be on Facebook (albeit supervised perhaps). I also think that social media could help hone our ability to communicate verbally about our selves and emotions in ways that are more efficent and effective. It also gives people a voice when they might not feel that they have a voice in their offline lives….

      Thanks for your thoughts on all this! The dialogue is really helpful! I may be slow to get back to you, but I will…..:-)

      Reply
  6. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button! I’d definitely donate to this fantastic blog! I guess for now i’ll
    settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

    I look forward to new updates and will talk about this website with my Facebook group.

    Talk soon!

    Reply
    • Thanks! No donate button, but once the anxiety- and stress-reduction app I’m working on is ready to share with the world, my blogging community will be the first to know so stay tuned for that! :-)

      Reply
  7. This may be one of the most pertinent questions of our time.

    “If we are busy posting, texting, and tweeting our thoughts and experiences, do we have less time and ability to support others and in turn receive support?”

    I’m in my mid 30′s and feel bad for many teens. All children can adapt and partake in activities that are available to them. Fishing, sports, dance, rock climbing, texting, video games etc. Who gives them those choices? It can’t just be society or all these mobile and digital giants. Living online and being “liked” as a metric for how their peers perceive them is quite often something they’ve learned from their parents. The amount of times I have been at the playground with my young children and watched as a child does something incredibly, dangerous, stupid, rude etc, only to look over to see their parent or guardian thumbing away on their smart phones is innumerable.

    I truly believe that discussions like these should be apart of the school curriculum. Kids should at least be aware of how these interactions may fall short. Marketing too. They should be aware of the basic marketing techniques used to lure them in through their phones or tablets. Brands are ubiquitous now and it’s getting harder to tell where they end and we begin.

    Thanks for the fantastic and compelling read!

    Chris

    Reply
    • Thanks Chris! The issue of peer pressure you raise is particularly compelling. I agree it must be absolutely exhausting to be a teen today.

      Reply
  8. Reblogged this on Pedagoogle and commented:
    Het sociale landschap van jongeren is ‘overnight’ veranderd, ‘social media’ maken een belangrijk deel uit van de leefwereld van jongeren en dit stelt ons voor ingewikkelde vragen. Wat betekent het als een jongere meer interactie zoekt via sociale media en minder face-to-face tijd doorbrengt met vrienden? Is het een probleem dat voor veel jongeren het ok lijkt om verkering uit te maken via een tekstbericht? Een prikkelend blog van Tracy Dennis op haar blog Psyche’s Circuitry – Thoughts on growing up and growing old in the digitale age (http://psychescircuitry.wordpress.com/).

    Reply
  9. Okay, so I told you before I had written a couple of articles on this sort of thing myself….after perusing your blog a bit, I will retract that statement. You clearly are professional researching the field……my posts/papers have only been musings of my own mind…not anything near your level of writing…….

    Reply
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