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Social Media and Teens

Adolescent Brain and Social Media

October 18th, 2019     By Linda Phosaly, Ph.D., Post-Doc Clinical Psychology Fellow, Boys Town Behavioral Health Center

Behavior, Mental Health, social media, Understanding Behavior

Adolescence is a developmental stage where peer support and approval are critical. Most teenagers are engrossed in what their peers think, what their peers are doing, and how their peers perceive them. Adolescents are highly sensitive to peer acceptance or rejection.

Technology has made this even more salient in their lives. Today's youth are known as "digital natives." In other words, technology and media have been part of their lives since birth. A world without internet is unimaginable for teenagers, who use media for entertainment as well as for social connection. Most teenagers communicate with their peers through social media via likes, photos, tweets, and instant messages.

For this reason, it is imperative for parents to understand the development of the adolescent brain and its role in social media use. One of the first parts of the brain to develop is the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional processing. The amygdala is located within our limbic system that also houses a reward circuit. With each like and tweet, the reward circuit is activated, and the adolescent brain thrives on the emotional rewards. Each social media interaction becomes a rewarding stimulus that provides instant gratification and leaves teenagers to seek more of it.

One of the last parts of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for rational decision-making.  Because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until we hit our mid-twenties, the adolescent brain is overrun by poor decisions, impulsive behavior, and emotional reactions. The ability to stop and think before acting (i.e. posting questionable pictures, disclosing personal information, making derogatory comments) is still emerging in most teenagers.

Because adolescents are powered primarily by the emotional part of their brains while the rational part is still developing, it is important for parents to understand that adolescents will need guidance on using social media appropriately. Most adolescents are living in the moment in social media and do not yet have the cognitive capacity to understand the long-term consequences of their use.


  • Familiarize yourself with social media trends, networking sites, platforms, and applications (apps). As technology continues to grow, you want to stay-up-to-date with what is out there and how your teenager might be using it. The more you know, the more you can help your teenager navigate technology and social media appropriately.
  • Have conversations about your teenager's social media use and internet presence. Discuss what their digital footprints look like and reinforce the idea that "what goes online, stays online."
  • Set house rules and put limits on media use (i.e. no devices at dinner, screen-free sleep) but try not to strictly prohibit access. Teenagers will often perceive parental monitoring as a violation of their privacy and independence. They may be more likely to engage in risky online behavior in secrecy.
  • Learn about privacy settings and empower your teenagers to use them. Teenagers are more receptive to opportunities to be change agents for themselves and opportunities that provide a sense of control.
  • Monitor your teenager's moods. Adolescence is infamous for raging hormones and rollercoaster emotions; however, mood changes following screen use can be a red flag for cyberbullying, "Facebook depression or envy," or exposure to inappropriate content. Seek professional help if you are worried something else is going on.   

Boys Town has a variety of tools to use in your home to help you prepare for social media use and maintain a healthy relationship with it. Try our Social Media Driver's License or our Family Media Policy

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