The Neurological and Cultural Currency of Social Media

Fall 2019

By Meghan McNeill

The relationship between smartphones, the social media platforms they support, and dopamine, the feel-good hormone, has been discussed extensively in educational circles over recent years. Smartphones are doing more than disrupting our neurotransmitters and making us dependent on dopamine-driven loops of instant gratification. They are changing the social-communicative norms of the future as they influence how young people prefer to communicate. The constant vying for our attention is altering our ability to sustain the focus needed to engage in developmentally appropriate task initiation, completion, and decision-making, as well as emotional and impulse regulation. These are all functions associated with the development of the frontal lobes and the prefrontal cortex, and our overdependence on technology is doing something to disrupt this development. Without the proper development of these skills, which are often not explicitly taught in school, our students will be facing a very difficult future, with risks to their academic or career prospects and social-emotional intelligence.

Students With ADHD

As the director of the Learning Skills Program (a learning support program for students with diagnosed learning differences) at Christchurch School in Virginia, I work exclusively with students with neurological differences. The majority of these students have ADHD. Scientists have observed lower levels of dopamine associated with markers of ADHD, and most stimulant medications intended to minimize these symptoms often flood the body with dopamine. However, our complicated relationship with social media has provided an avenue for young people with developing brains and neurological challenges to self-medicate. They have the power to take a hit of dopamine by experiencing a positive social interaction through their smartphone. This is especially concerning because we know that biological factors associated with risk-taking and novelty-seeking behaviors predispose those with ADHD to addiction and substance abuse later in life. Assuming young people have the capacity to self-regulate their usage is gravely underestimating the inherent challenges that arise from the intersection of smartphones and the ADHD brain.

Never Alone

The omnipresent access to social situations through our smartphone means we never have to be alone. Online communication has become ubiquitous and the norm for many teenagers. According to a fall 2015 market research survey, the smartphone had reached the maximum possible market saturation for a product, as two out of three teens owned an iPhone.1 Teens are spending more time communicating with their friends online, and many educators and parents worry that electronic interaction has replaced face-to-face interaction. More concerning, smart phones are placing young people at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Reported depression and suicide rates among teens have skyrocketed since 2011, the same era in which the smartphone saturated the market.2 This constant access to social stimuli is not making us feel more connected and more satisfied in our relationships. According to a study conducted from 2013 to 2015 to measure happiness in teens who spent time online, teens who visited social networking sites every day were actually more likely to report feelings of loneliness, exclusion, and rejection than peers who spent time with their friends in person.3

We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know

Malcolm X said, “We can’t teach what we don’t know, and we can’t lead where we can’t go.”  This observation lays the foundation of culturally competent approaches for supporting students through an increasingly complex digital landscape. Social media are taking advantage of our hard-wired needs for security and social interaction while keeping us dependent on dopamine-driven loops of instant gratification. We are, right now, in a time when social and communication norms are changing at an alarming pace.

As educators, we need to surrender some of our authority to learn the significance and structure of these interactions from and through our students. This means placing ourselves in the role of the learner to understand the cultural, psychological, and sociological significance of adolescent digital relationships. This means understanding that many young people may not be able to unplug because they lack the dexterity in processing speed and social skills to effectively code-switch, and this means respecting the legitimacy of this struggle. I don’t know where our evolving relationship with social media is heading, but I know as a millennial myself that the emerging preference for online socialization is not a fad. It is fundamentally influencing both our perceived need to socially engage and the manner in which we do so.

A Few Things I’ve Tried

As educators, it is our responsibility to cultivate culturally responsive approaches for encouraging our students to unplug and understand the influence our devices have on the ways in which we interact with the world around us. It is also our responsibility to understand the cultural and communicative nuances emerging through electronic interaction because technology is not just changing how we communicate; for many young people, it is influencing the structure of their relationships. Our relationships with technology and our relationships with each other through technology are causing a significant mental health crisis that has captured the attention of educators and parents alike.

I recognize the magnitude of this issue, and I don’t have a magic solution. However, in order to better support the young people in my community, we have managed to implement a few support structures. As a boarding school with evening and weekend programing, we now offer one intentionally unplugged social event every week, ranging from baking cookies, playing games in the library, engaging in community service, to playing basketball. I challenge my advisory to participate in phone-free Thursday where they leave their phones in my office for part of or the entire day. I ask students to teach me about the platforms they are using, and I strive to understand the currency of such interactions.

Within our learning support program, I promote mindfulness as a tool for promoting self-regulation, impulse control, and self-awareness of our relationship with social media. I support the facilitation of conversations that engage students in constructively evaluating the role of technology in their lives. These conversations expand beyond the typical “how to protect your public profile and stay safe online” as they dive into how our relationship with technology hinders our neurological development and our ability to sustain attention and shapes our social relationships.

Online Communication and Our Future

I realize that the high school students I currently support will set future professional and social communication norms. I ask them to tell and show me how they prefer to communicate with each other, and I become fluent in popular social media or communication platforms. I realize that these platforms will evolve, but this information could provide clues to the relationships teens construct with each other and how they choose to communicate. As a millennial, I am part of the Facebook generation. I remember when Facebook was new and something to be somewhat cautious of and when social interactions over Facebook were viewed as trivial, unproductive, and unprofessional. However, through using Facebook as a young adult, I not only tangentially stayed in touch with friends from around the world, but I also landed an apartment and found a job that evolved into a fulfilling professional experience.

Social Media as Our Professional Responsibility

The evolving place and power of smartphones in our society is multifaceted, and the realization that, as teachers, we are responsible for preparing students for an unknown social and professional world is daunting. As communicative and social norms continue to evolve through our relationships with our devices, we have a great responsibility to educate ourselves on the latest social media trends, as these apps are not just social entertainment; they are shaping adolescent peer relationships. In order to meet the social and emotional needs of our students, we need to understand the structure of their complex and digital social worlds. Culturally responsive approaches to supporting the needs of our students are rooted in understanding the nuances that drive the culture that in turn drives our students’ experiences. 

Notes

  1. Twenge, Jean M., PhD. IGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy- and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. New York, NY/ Atria Books, 2017.
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
Meghan McNeill

Meghan McNeill (MMcneill@christchurchschool.org) is the director of the Learning Skills Program at Christchurch School, Christchurch, Virginia.