How Social Media Works

When my friend’s children want to find a new book to read, they turn to TikTok. The app lets them search for videos about popular fiction similar to other books they’ve enjoyed. It’s an efficient way to discover new authors and hear what others appreciate (or not) about a particular series. It’s their version of scanning library or bookstore shelves for the next great read.

Warnings about the dangers of social media for kids are commonplace. Some blame it for an increased incidence of childhood depression and call it a public mental health crisis. Others lament that time spent online displaces outdoor activities and contributes to obesity. The U.S. surgeon general has even declared that only persons 14 and older should use social media apps.

Yet, for all the negative hype, social media – like online activities more generally – have become a mainstay of children’s daily lives. Rather than trying to ban it, families can work together to understand how social media works and develop ways to manage its effects on our brains and well-being.

First, we have to remember that human beings are wired for connection. Being connected to others enhances our ability to survive. Social media helps us build networks of individuals who share our interests and can provide emotional support. Studies show that most people use social media to reinforce offline connections and also to make new friends that share their interests or concerns. Share your reasons for being on social media and invite children to do the same. 

It’s also helpful to know that scrolling through posts on social media sites often triggers a neurotransmitter in our brains called ‘dopamine’. It communicates messages of pleasure and fulfillment to our central nervous system, which encourages us to keep doing what we’re doing. In this way, dopamine is sometimes likened to a drug, which can be good in appropriate dosages for emotional well-being and problematic if one becomes addicted.

Social media use generates dopamine because it is a form of pursuit. Kids (and adults) go online to find information and as they succeed in that process, their brain rewards them with a flood of good feelings. This positive reinforcement encourages them to keep seeking new knowledge, which prompts additional dopamine signals. The challenge is that this cycle can continue indefinitely because of the endless amount of information online. Encouraging children to engage in short bursts rather than long sessions can keep dopamine levels in check.

Family members can also regulate their dopamine levels by paying attention to their bodies and emotions. When our levels are appropriate, our bodies are relaxed and our breathing normal. We feel happy, motivated, focused, and alert. Too much dopamine results in feelings of euphoria and an inability to sit still. Too little dopamine causes tiredness, difficulty concentrating, and a lack of motivation. Coach children (and yourself) to monitor feelings while using social media and take breaks when they sense their dopamine levels swing high or low.



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