A new study reveals that the brains of teens who watched TikTok had the same areas associated with addiction light up on a scan, but how worried should parents be? Experts weigh in on how addictive social media can be for kids.
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When I was a middle school-aged kid back in the early '90s, my mom was deeply suspicious of Nintendo. I would race home from school, throw my bookbag on the floor, and then sprint to the living room TV, where I would play Super Mario Brothers until my eyes felt like they would melt out of my face. My mother didn't like this behavior, so she created a rule that I had to finish homework and play outside for at least an hour before I "ruined my eyes" staring "at that useless game."

As a mother to a tween in 2022, I wish my battle over tech were as easy as my mom had it. Because now, there's the internet and social media apps, including the mother of all endless scrolling escapism: TikTok. My tween has his first phone and with it a series of boundaries that my husband and I hope to keep him safe online. Still, I worry when I see news like the Chinese study on teens showing that watching TikTok triggers parts of the brain associated with addiction.

Studies like this can fuel parental fear around the powerful influence social media apps like Instagram and TikTok have on users, especially kids. But how much stock should we put into quick news bite stories that make such big claims as saying TikTok may be addictive?

What Is Social Media Addiction?

Social media addiction is currently not a recognized disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, (DSM-V), the manual medical professionals use to diagnose mental disorders. That does not mean, however, that social media addiction isn't real. In a 2016 poll from Common Sense Media, 77 percent of parents reported that their teens pay more attention to their devices than family. When asked if parents think their teen is addicted to their phone, 59 percent of parents said yes, and half of teens surveyed say they do feel addicted to their mobile devices.

Experts define social media addiction as a behavioral addiction or a non-substance addiction. They point to social media's connection to dopamine—a neurotransmitter made in the brain that is known as the "feel-good" hormone—as a big part of the problem. When a person engages in something they find enjoyable, their brain releases dopamine, aka they feel good. In turn, they want more of that feeling. In terms of social media, that can be a kid getting a like, share, or positive mention, stimulating the brain to release dopamine. Those social media reinforcements can become addictive. In fact, research has shown that those who use social media heavily have similar impaired decision-making as those suffering from substance abuse disorders.

And kids are using social media more than ever. Another Common Sense Media survey in 2021 found 38 percent of tweens were using social media that year, up from 31 percent in 2019. And about 1 in 5 said they use social media daily, an increase from 5 percent two years prior. As for teens, 84 percent of them said they are using social media and they were spending about an hour and a half a day on it, compared to an hour and 10 minutes in 2019. But a child's ability to get lost in scrolling and watching videos for hours without interruption, like my tween, does not necessarily mean they have an addiction.

"Any addiction is defined by the inability to stop repeated or prolonged use despite continued negative consequences," says Clifford Sussman M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C., who treats people of all ages with excessive screen time-related issues. "The severity is related to the dysfunctionality of the negative consequences. Therefore, phone and social media addiction are not defined by the total hours or frequency of use, but rather the negative impacts."

Research has found a link between social media use and depression in teens. And social media addiction can lead to severe consequences. For example, the parents of CJ Dawley, a 17-year-old who died by suicide in 2015, told CNN they believe social media led to his death. They say he often stayed up until 3 a.m. on Instagram and became "sleep-deprived and obsessed with his body image." They are now two of an increasing number of parents who are suing social media companies for the effects platforms have had on their children.

Julia Tartaglia, M.D., a digital and behavioral health researcher at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health, says these are some signs a child may be suffering from social media addiction:

  • Spending increasing amounts of time on social media.
  • Losing friendships, slipping grades, or conflicts with teachers or parents over social media use.
  • Choosing to spend time online over real-life activities, such as seeing friends, attending school, and personal interests.
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut down or stop using social media.
  • Neglecting personal hygiene, sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

What Parents Can Do About Social Media Addiction

Social media isn't all bad. It's an important tool for connections, especially due to the isolation felt by so many kids during the pandemic. But for kids exhibiting concerning behaviors, parents may need to step in. Opening lines of communication with your kids is a great first step in helping them to learn how to enjoy social media while also protecting themselves through smart boundary settings, including screen limits.

"We don't know enough to say that parents can prevent social media addiction by requiring their child to adhere to certain screen time limits," says Dr. Tartaglia. "It turns out that the relationship between screen time and psychological well-being isn't straightforward. However, some studies have found associations between excess screen time and poorer psychological and developmental outcomes, especially in younger children. This suggests that limiting excessive screen time may be beneficial."

To do that, experts suggest helping kids to think critically about their social media use. Julianna Miner, author of Raising a Screen Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age and former adjunct professor of public health from Cincinnati, suggests asking questions that will prompt your kid to think hard about what they are getting out of the apps. For example, parents can ask: "How much time per day is reasonable to spend on TikTok?" And then encourage them to think about time and its trade-offs: "Every hour you spend on TikTok is time not spent doing something else. Over a few months or a year, it adds up."

It's also important for parents to spend more time listening than talking. Not only will this show kids that we genuinely care about what they think but listening also offers a ton of insight into how kids understand the social media landscape they are using.

For children who may already be addicted to social media, the good news is it's totally treatable. Reducing time spent on social media or removing social media altogether may be helpful for some. For others who feel more consumed by the need to engage with social media, parents may want to consider professional help. Through therapy, teens can learn to understand why they are addicted to social media and find ways to use it in a healthy manner. 

For parents who want to dive into resources that can help navigate screen time with kids, check out Healthy Children, a helpful informational resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics where families can interact with the family media use tool to learn more about creating custom family media use plans.