George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Understanding the Science of Social Media

Schools can play a big role in educating students and their families about the potential pitfalls of social media.

May 8, 2023
Kerkez / iStock

Author and futurist Brian Solis has said that “social media is more about sociology and psychology than technology.” To take that a step further, social media really comes down to neurology—to how it influences our brains. Researchers have found a link between the amount of time adolescents spend on social media and their levels of depression, particularly among girls, and Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology, asserts that social media is the reason for a drastic uptick in mental health issues among children.

Social media has become so much of a concern that the U.S. surgeon general declared that no one under the age of 14 should be on social media, and states are starting to take action to limit usage and hold social media companies accountable.

As educators know, schools are facing unprecedented amounts of student mental health and misconduct issues with strong connections to social media. School leaders are at a loss trying to keep up with these issues. Doing so will take a multifaceted approach to address the social media crisis among students. The first step is awareness of social media’s influence on the brain, followed by educating students and parents on ways to navigate these troubled waters. 

What’s Behind Our Need for Social Media?

Why is it so easy to fall into a TikTok rabbit hole? You know these situations when you spend hours mindlessly scrolling Facebook, Instagram, etc., with no sense of time. One reason could be the influence that social media has on a chemical neurotransmitter in your brain.

Dopamine is a powerful and important neurotransmitter. It’s known as the “get up and go” or “pursuit” neurotransmitter. It motivates us to get things done. We feel our best when our dopamine level is associated with extended periods of effort. Our dopamine level goes out of whack when we receive repeated “dopamine hits” with little to no effort at all. When this occurs, the dopamine is in control of us, leading to compulsive behaviors.

Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, asserts that there are peripersonal and extrapersonal spaces. Your peripersonal space includes items on your person or within your reach. Items in your extrapersonal space are literally out of reach. A hunter going out in the woods to hunt requires extended periods of effort to do so. Dopamine will be released over that period of time in anticipation of the hunt. The deer is out of the hunter’s reach; therefore, it exists in extrapersonal space. Once the hunter has the deer, it’s in peripersonal space, and dopamine shuts off.

So how is all this related to social media? Social media content falls under extrapersonal space. There is something always there, and dopamine is constantly pursuing it. As more and more dopamine gets released, your threshold increases, making it more and more difficult to feel accomplished. You end up compulsively scrolling and scrolling.

Social media is designed to keep our interest through the use of powerful artificial intelligence algorithms. These algorithms will quickly probe you to determine your interests. Ultimately, they are seeking to get your dopamine levels up, so you go into pursuit mode. The ease of access and endless quantity is what especially complicates the addictive behaviors associated with social media.

How can we expect our students (and their parents) to understand how to navigate those social media waters without this understanding?

Social Media Education

Schools are ideally set up to help educate youth and the community to bring about an awareness of the driving force behind social media and provide practical safeguards. Offering health classes or having the school counselor teach lessons is a good place to start, as early as elementary school. It’s important to note that when these topics are discussed in class, information should also be sent home.

Common Sense Media has lots of free information and resources to help teachers and school administrators educate students and parents on digital citizenship, including social media. In particular, they have self-paced trainings and videos.

Lesson topics should include the following elements.

Usage limits: The U.S. surgeon general recommends that children under the age of 14 should not be on social media; most social media apps set the age requirement at 13+.

If a parent is comfortable with age 14, then a daily usage limit is the next step. Increased social media use has been associated with higher levels of mental health issues, decreased academic performance, lack of exercise, and general decreased well-being. Therefore, children should be limited to 30–60 minutes a day to help avoid those issues. Both Google and Apple have screen time trackers to help parents or guardians monitor usage.

Appropriate conduct and safety: Digital etiquette and conduct while online is an integral piece of the education program. Students should be encouraged to sign a safety contract with their parents or guardians, and they should learn how to be a good digital citizen, how to identify and respond to grooming and predatory behaviors, and the dangers of sexting.

How to report cyberbullying or harassment: Inevitably, students will encounter some form of cyberbullying or harassment while online, as either a victim or a bystander. Steps should include:

  1. Do not respond.
  2. Save the evidence.
  3. Report it directly to the app company.
  4. Contact the local police department if it involves a threat or ongoing harassment.
  5. Notify the school’s principal if it’s associated with the school. 

Yearly Parent Informational Meeting

A yearly informational meeting should be held with your building’s parent group, covering the following topics:

All educators and school leaders are urged to recognize their roles and responsibilities in better educating their students and in turn the community. Together, we can best help our youth and counter some of these troubling trends. 

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