Cerebrum Winter 2020


Across the full spectrum of digital media, results were mixed in terms of both psychopathology and cognitive performance.

of depression to begin with, consistent with a downward spiral. The algorithms that drive social media likely exacerbate this spiral, Conrod said in an interview. “How information is presented makes [social media] particularly effective in promoting depression,” she said. Her group found no evidence to support “displacement,” the idea that time on social media displaces face-to- face social interaction, physical exercise, or other health-promoting activities, as a mechanistic explanation for the increase in depression, though other studies have suggested this. Conrad noted another important characteristic of social media. “[It] is a powerful way of promoting unrealistic social norms,” she said. “Young people are being exposed to this warped, distorted reality at a time when they are constructing their own schema of the world and themselves. Their brains are developing in interaction with the messages from social media, and we have no idea what the implications of that are.” What’s It Doing to the Brain? Scientists are just beginning to investigate how social media and other digital media may physically impact the developing brain. The largest ongoing investigation is the federally funded Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, a prospective longitudinal study that will eventually enroll 11,500 9- and 10-year-olds at 21 sites and follow them for 10 years. Participants undergo once-yearly brain scans to track how their brains develop, which can then be related to a host of behavioral and environmental factors, including social media use and other “screen media activity.” The first cross-sectional data published from the ABCD study was directed at screen time, with the goal

scrolling social media.” She stressed the importance of understanding which platforms young people are using, how they are engaging, and what kind of characteristics define the groups they are interacting with, such as chat rooms for gaming enthusiasts. These are factors that most studies of social media’s effects on youth have not looked at in detail. “They all play a part in how kids are growing up today, in shaping their identities and how they feel about themselves,” Della Pietra said. Reinforcing Spirals A leading theory of how social media influences mental health, positively or negatively, is the idea of “reinforcing spirals.” People who are well connected with others tend to receive more positive reinforcement on social sites, which may make them feel better about themselves, whereas people with fewer connections and poorer networks may receive negative reinforcement, which can exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities to depression or anxiety The Montreal study’s finding that self-esteem mediated social media’s effects on depression supports this mechanism. Moreover, the negative effects of social media were slightly greater in adolescents with high levels

of establishing baselines for time spent on digital media and how that relates to brain structure and neuropsychological measures. The results underscore the complexity of the questions around digital media use. Among all forms of digital media, time spent on social media was the least associated with structural brain changes linked to vulnerability to psychiatric disease. Social media time was, however, associated with lower scores in tests of both fluid intelligence, the ability to think and reason regardless of prior experience, and crystallized intelligence, which relates to experience and accumulation of knowledge. Across the full spectrum of digital media, results were mixed in terms of both psychopathology and cognitive performance. “The diversity of findings provides an important public health message: screen media activity is not simply ‘bad for the brain’ or ‘bad for brain- related functioning,’ the authors wrote. Like others, they called for further investigations to examine how various digital media platforms influence the brain and cognition, and how these effects change over the course of development. Until such investigations provide clearer answers, there seems to be a tenuous consensus for caution when it comes to adolescents and screen time. Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urge families to create screen media plans that set aside “screen-free” times and areas of the home, including bedtime and bedrooms to encourage good sleep. The AAP guidelines emphasize parental supervision, modeling healthy screen- time behavior, and teaching digital media literacy—wise and mindful use of screen time—beginning at a young age. l


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