Expert Health Articles

Virtual World, Real Problems: Social Media’s Impact on Developing Minds


Certified Nurse Practitioner
Psychiatric Center of Northwest Ohio 

After almost two decades in the healthcare field, I have noticed several themes that cause concern not only for teenagers but also for young adults. The concerning topics are driven by direct connections between technology/social media platforms and mental health, as well as the developing brain in general.

“Free Platform”

It has been claimed that social media outlets (and the integration of artificial intelligence into them) comprise what is called a “free platform.” This is ironic because recent studies suggest that these “free platforms” are actually very costly. Of course, these costs are not necessarily measured in dollars and cents. Rather, the costs can be seen from a mental health standpoint.  

Science, Technostress & Fear of Missing Out

Endless scrolling, accompanied by persistent cueing and random, perceived rewards, are theoretically the same methods that gambling casinos use to draw customers to their slot machines. This creates the opportunity for the dopaminergic reactions that can lead to gambling addiction. These biological reward circuits remain intact after formation, becoming an influential component of the central learning mechanism that impacts habit formation.  

Clinical trials demonstrate that dopamine levels are triggered whenever there is a potential reward associated with specific behavior. In a social media environment, one trigger is the inability to know the difference between real-life expectations and virtual cueing that could be fake or misleading. This directly impacts the young minds in question, and it can eventually lead to anxiety, depression, and feelings of alienation. Self-esteem can also be negatively impacted, as habitual social media users often make false comparisons between real selves and virtual selves. This, in turn, can lead to impaired concentration and further warped judgment.  

One of the terms used to describe these modern developments is “technostress,” or fear of missing out (FOMO). Suffering technostress can cause biological reactions like those endured by users withdrawing from a powerful central nervous system stimulant like cocaine. And while such experiences can be overwhelming for an adult, imagine what kind of havoc they can wreak on a developing mind.

Setting Clear Limits

As scientific studies continue to expose the relationship between social media usage and negative psychological impacts, how can we protect our young people from the fallout? One answer is by setting clear limitations. Establishing technology usage boundaries for youngsters can allow their dopamine circuits to reset, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will seek out the positive reinforcement of tangible experiences, such as those found in exercise or in-person friendships. Not allowing electronic devices to serve as passive time-fillers can also help. That being said, please remember that reducing screen time can be a delicate process, and this is why it is recommended to pursue your goal slowly over time.   

Finding Real-Life Adventures & Hobbies

Although the negative impacts of social media have been gaining much more attention, this type of addiction is not yet defined as a disorder within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). There are, however, still options available for addressing the deleterious consequences of heavy social media use. These options include simple conversation, monitoring the amount of time spent on devices, and offering fun and stimulating real-life adventures as a substitute for a time monopolized by an electronic device. These activities can include hiking, outdoor sports, reading, drawing, and any other hobby that encourages smartphones and devices to remain on the sidelines. In more serious situations, such as when underlying depression and/or anxiety are exacerbated by social media use, perhaps cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, motivational interviewing, or even group counseling sessions may be of benefit. 

As stewards of our young people, it is important for us to recognize that the virtual world can cause real problems. To that end, set limits, establish boundaries, monitor usage, and actively replace excessive social media use with wholesome alternatives.