Family, Kids & Relationships

How to talk to your tween/teen about how social media affects their brain

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For our first two decades of life, the prefrontal cortex of our brain is still developing and learning how to control impulses and think through consequences. A healthy prefrontal cortex is key to forming strong social bonds, and to success at school and at work.

Social media can strain a developing prefrontal cortex by creating social pressure to interact constantly through multiple apps…all of which are bombarding the teenage brain with harmful messages about body image, social status, and discrimination, which often has a deeply negative impact on a teen’s self-image and self-esteem. 

Studies have shown a relationship between higher social media use and lower wellbeing in teenagers. These tips will walk you through the impacts of social media on the teenage brain and how you can help prevent some of these harmful effects. 

Of course, not all brains develop in the same way, or at the same pace, so these tips are meant to be a general guide for neurotypical teens. Neurodivergent teens may be impacted in different ways by social media, but extreme caution is recommended for parents of ALL teens when it comes to social media exposure. 

How does social media impact the teenage brain?

  • Teens and tweens are still developing the prefrontal cortex of their brains, which is responsible for regulating emotions and impulses.
  • Social media can strain a developing prefrontal cortex by creating social pressure to interact constantly through multiple apps.
  • Social media apps are full of content that can harm a teen’s self-image and self-esteem.
  • Social media apps are designed to keep us coming back and scrolling as long as possible. 

How can I protect my tween/teen’s brain from the effects of social media?

  • Encourage them to do one thing at a time. Multitasking can lead to reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex and reduced focus.
  • Embrace the Joy of Missing Out. Forget FOMO! Encourage your kids to build spaces and activities into their day when screens are out of sight. Speak with joy and positivity about taking a break from screens.
  • Keep it real. Remind your child about how social media can filter out the unpleasant or boring parts of people’s lives, which can lead us to draw unfair comparisons with our own lives and harm our self-esteem.
  • Teach them about algorithms. Social media apps are designed to show us the content that will keep us coming back. Making your child aware of how these apps can suck us in will help them resist checking social media too frequently.
  • Encourage real-life connections. Prioritizing your child’s real-life friendships by driving them to playdates or activities will help them build stronger relationships as more and more of their friends start to get on social media. Practicing these social skills is vital to a developing young brain. 
  • No screens in bed! Bright screens and social media apps keep our brains wired when they should be tired. Getting enough sleep is critical to developing the prefrontal cortex, and screens in the bedroom can be seriously disruptive to a child’s sleep. 

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.