Social networking is not just changing the way teenagers interact, it's changing their brains

We’ve become so desensitised to the internet we’ve failed to realise that it is a potentially dangerous foundation on which to base one’s sense of self.

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The Independent Online

ITV’s Tonight programme, which airs this evening at 7.30, will explore the complex and occasionally unfathomable relationship between British teenagers and the internet. As part of the show, I was invited to workshop with a group of eight young people to explore issues surrounding confidence and self-esteem.

What struck me most was how the parameters of what is considered ‘normal’ have shifted so dramatically since social networking came into our lives. The teen participants of the show were specifically selected because they represented a spectrum of what might broadly be labelled ‘average’ within their demographic. None of them had a diagnosed mental health issue and when I chatted to them pre-filming they were quick to assure me of how happy and balanced they considered themselves to be.

When I asked them to describe their relationship with the internet they were casually dismissive, deflecting my attention to stories of friends and classmates who had what they considered to be ‘serious problems’. They had never been ‘properly’ cyber bullied, they told me, and maintained a what they’d deem a healthy emotional distance from goings on within the cyber sphere.

Further probing, however, revealed that they could all name exactly how many followers they had on each of their social media accounts, the majority had been the target of appearance-based insults via the web and their equilibrium on some days depended entirely on how many ‘likes’ they’d garnered on their latest selfie. Interestingly, there was an agreed minimum acceptable ‘like’ total for each image (it was 30, in case you are wondering), despite the fact that their follower/friend count ranged from just over one hundred to several thousand.

The digital age has moved the goalposts in the field of mental health. Young people consider it perfectly normal to be insulted, harassed and bullied online, they regularly offer two dimensional versions of themselves out into the cyber sphere for the judgment and approval of others in order to validate themselves. Many of them believe that if they are unable to document an event online then ‘it didn’t really happen’. We’ve become so desensitised to the internet and its impact, we’ve failed to realise that this is a precarious and potentially dangerous foundation on which to base one’s sense of self.

Little wonder, then, that the latest research has found social networking is having a significant and largely negative effect on young people’s cumulative body image, ability to concentrate in class and to interact socially. Professor Rachel Thompson published a paper earlier this year in which she noted that today’s youth see family and school time as ‘pauses’ in their online existences, thus inverting what their elders would consider to be the divide between the ‘real’ and digital world.

Neuroscientists are on the cusp of proving that prolonged exposure to social networking sites dictates the way a young brain will develop, with evidence to suggest it leads to a heightened concern for how one compares to others. It has already been proven that phone alerts for social media activity provoke a Pavlovian response, stimulating pleasure receptors in the brain (responsible for the desire to leap on your phone whenever you hear that tell-tale ‘ding’, even if it’s likely to be someone inviting you to play Candy Crush Saga).

In light of this, our workshop focused on getting the teenage participants to recognise and articulate non-visual qualities in each other, like kindness, humour and bravery. I must have done this exercise thousands of times with various groups of young people throughout my career and it never fails to move me to the verge of tears. When you witness first-hand the impact these kinds of compliments have, you realise that this is a generation who desperately need reminding that their value to themselves and to the world cannot be captured in a selfie.

ITV’s Tonight ‘Teenage Lives Online’ airs 4th December 2014, 7,30pm, ITV1.

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