Adolescent Brain Development and the Impact of Social Media on Mental Wellness

Joanne Quigley, MD, joins this episode of Michigan Minds to discuss adolescent brain development and how social media can impact mental well-being. Quigley is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Michigan Medicine. She is also the medical director of Michigan Medicine’s Child & Adolescent Ambulatory Psychiatry and the U-M Addiction Treatment Services (UMATS). 

“I collaborate with a number of different groups, one of which is currently looking at ways to understand adolescent substance use and look at ways at preventing initiation of use or reducing use over time,” says Quigley. She’s also involved in  MC3, a statewide program that provides psychiatry support to primary care providers in Michigan. “MC3 [does] research in order to understand how well the program’s working and how we can be helpful in different ways to providers out in the community so that then the kids and their families are getting access to mental health care more effectively.”

Quigley recently presented at Michigan Medicine’s Social Media & Mental Wellness webinar, which focused on providing education and advice to families of teens and tweens about  social media usage and its potential effects on children. She comments on the rapid and dynamic state of change that children and adolescents experience as they grow and develop, noting that it takes a human brain many years to reach full maturity.

“So we know that starting around 10 or 11 years of age, a lot of changes start happening in terms of the ways the brain is processing information, the ways different parts of the brain are trying to connect to each other more effectively, and what we call like a cleaning-up process is going on in the brain, and that actually takes us well into our mid-twenties to really be ‘complete,’” she says.

Researchers know that the brain changes a tremendous amount during childhood and adolescence as it tries to figure out how to work well and enable the child to grow up to  become an effective and independent adult. 

“The parts of the brain that are kind of getting on board and connecting and jelling really well earlier are the parts of the brain involved in sensation seeking, reward seeking, pleasure, motivation, and our physical coordination. And later on, the part of the brain that’s involved in decision making—kind of slowing down, considering options, what we call executive functioning that helps us be prudent in our decisions—that doesn’t really jell and make those final connections until later on,” she says. 

Quigley explains that the younger an individual is when they start using, the more likely it is that they will develop a substance use disorder (SUD) in their lifetime/adulthood. Additionally, adolescents who display traits of novelty-seeking or poor impulse control are at  greater risk of developing SUDs.  

In reference to the use of social media during adolescence, Quigley explains that the brain is doing many different things at once—like making decisions, processing information, and managing time. Social media platforms are also designed to pull their audiences in and keep them engaged through the release of dopamine, which gives viewers the sense of short-term pleasure or reward in the form of interactions or likes on a post.  

“For many kids, even though they might be seeking connectedness through social media, they may not be feeling it in a meaningful way,” she says. “And I think that’s what we’re really trying to understand as we look at this data. There’s this paradox between kids feeling more lonely and isolated—which we know is a risk factor for feeling more depressed—and yet accessing a lot of social media and a lot of ‘connectedness’ on these platforms. We’re trying to work out what has been positive for some kids, which is very valid that some kids find social media platforms to be safe spaces, and yet what can also be really negative and triggering for other kids.”

Quigley offers families advice on how to talk with their children about social media use, and recommends having an open conversation about what a reasonable amount of time to engage with social media may be. These conversations can continue with talking about where more time can be added as experiences on platforms become positive or taken away if they become negative. She also recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Family Media Plan, in which families can customize and update a plan that everyone agrees on, and resources from the Child Mind Institute and Common Sense Media

“If you’re having questions or concerns about safety or wondering about your child’s behavior related to using social media, a great place to start is with your kids’ primary care provider, and I really encourage families to start there and start the dialogue so that your child know there’s another space to talk about what might be going on if they’re not comfortable talking about it with you,” says Quigley.

“Never underestimate the power of influence insofar as be aware of your own behaviors with social media or your devices, because your kids are definitely watching, and they learn how you are using them. They watch when you’re using them, they watch what you’re doing, and that helps them understand both the positives and the negatives of these devices and platforms in our lives.”