Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – the video

Teenage social brain

As you know – or you will if you have been paying attention to all my extra shouting this month – there’s a brand new edition of Blame My Brain – The amazing teenage brain revealed. Here, I ran through four things that have changed and four that haven’t.

One of the biggest changes is this one:

Screens, social media and the social brain

A whole new chapter on screens, social media and the social brain. It’s odd to think that this wasn’t mentioned in the first edition, considering what an overwhelming part of life screens and social media now are. But I was doing the 2013 revisions in 2011-12 and social media wasn’t a Thing then. Yes, it existed but until the smartphone became mainstream and affordable, it wasn’t something enough people had in their pockets to make an impact on life. (The iphone was released in 2007 and at the time was described as by Microsoft’s chief as “the most expensive phone in the world.” That year the total number of smartphones in the world was 17million. In 2023 the number is estimated as 6.8 billion.)

I’ve already written a whole book on this – The Teenage Guide to Life Online – so it at least needs a chapter in Blame My Brain! And I explain it in the context of the human drive to being social and making connections with other humans.

Let me share some elements of that chapter.

The new chapter: The social brain – phones, friends, likes and peer pressure

“I want to fit in and stand out, be different and yet not noticed”

Those of you who know Blame My Brain know that each chapter starts with an imagined scenario focusing on a teenager who at some point interacts with an adult. The adult usually shows a weak understanding of what is going on. It is supposed to create some enlightenment and self-awareness in both teenage and adult readers.

For this chapter, we meet Sol. Sol wants to do well but he’s very engaged with social media. He’s quite worried about his own procrastination as he really does want to get his work done. We see him trying – and failing – to focus on his work and then failing to ignore something that’s happening on Insta. Something bad… His friend – well, not really a friend – Ed has shared a photo of a girl topless. Sol hates that he’s done this – Sol’s sister has educated him about objectification – and he tries to stay out of it. But even when he manages to leave that conversation, he gets sucked into everything else online and starts to feel self-loathing at his failure to stop checking notifications. He goes downstairs to talk to his mum – she starts to listen but then her phone pings.

And we, as the readers, ask ourselves, “Who’s the one with a communication habit, a brain addicted to social connection?”

What’s going on in that scene?

I encourage the reader to notice:

  • The compulsion to communicate
  • How easy it is to over-use screens and to feel addicted
  • The distraction and procrastination power of social media
  • The problem with trying to multi-task
  • Group behaviour – following the crowd and peer pressure
  • That it’s not just about teenagers – it’s adults, too

I suggest that these behaviours “stem from how human brains are ‘wired’”, wiring that makes the behaviours incredibly difficult to avoid. We are, in effect, “wired to love our screens”.

There are three specific ways in which the human brain is wired which are relevant to our overuse of screens and social media. For everything that drives us in this way, the evolutionary benefits are either (or both) survival and/or success. We – as a species and as individuals – do better when we follow these drives.

We are wired to be:

  1. Social – Early humans would be safer and more successful if they worked in a group, sharing information and tasks such as hunting, building shelters, bringing up children, caring for each other when injured, sick or old. Modern humans still benefit from connections with other people.
  2. Curious – Early humans benefited from being curious about knowledge and skills. Today, curiosity still helps us in the same way.
  3. Distracted – If an early human was so focused that they didn’t notice the sudden movement of a predator or enemy, he or she might be killed. Being distracted could keep you safe! Today, distractibility keeps us alert.

Think how our devices give us constant opportunities to be social, curious and distracted. The reward systems in our brain compel us to check our notifications ‘one more time’, creating habits which are incredibly hard to stop. We find it really hard to turn our devices off because we want that little buzz of pleasure so much. And be aware that the buzz of pleasure comes before we look at our screen not while – it’s the anticipation that we love.

All that applies to adults and young people. BUT, read on…

The teenage brain is super-social

Humans of all ages need connections with other people. Even people who enjoy being on their own also need friends. Think how you’d feel if something really good or bad had happened to you and you didn’t have anyone to tell? Loneliness is a major factor affecting mental health.

During adolescence, this need to fit in, to make friends, to build bonds with peers more than parents, is very powerful. Adolescents care more about what their peers think than what their parents and teachers think. Again, it’s biology. 

For a detailed post to understand this in the context of the separation stage, see here.

This drives peer and group pressure – following peers more than adults

As I say in Blame My Brain, “Adults often ask me, ‘Why does my teenager go along with what their friends want more than what I want, even though what I want is more sensible or better for them?’ My answer is, ‘Because they have to.’ The compulsion for a teenager to gain respect of friends and potential friends is stronger than their desire to please parents.”

Humans have a strong drive to fit in with the people around them. It’s even more important for adolescents than for adults, who are (slightly) less in need of the security of the group.

In this chapter of Blame My Brain I also discuss:

  1. FOMO – Fear of missing out
  2. Social embarrassment and self-consciousness
  3. the problem with using filters
  4. Oversharing and online cruelty – and the ‘online disinhibition effect’  a phrase coined by John Suler in 2004
  5. Sharing photos or videos
  6. The undeveloped prefrontal cortex
  7. Concentration versus distraction
  8. The problem (and myth) of multi-tasking

How to have a healthy social brain

Here’s an adapted list of tips from Blame My Brain:

  • Practise self-care. If your time online is dragging your mood down, switch off and do something else.
  • Make it easy. If you were trying to eat less chocolate, you’d hide the chocolate and make it hard to get. Do the same with your phone.
  • Focus on ONE task, if the task is important. You’ll love the feeling of getting it done well.
  • Remind yourself that almost everything online is altered. You are not seeing reality.
  • Don’t send a message when your emotions are strong.

Most importantly, make time for the healthy things in life. There are five essential things that many people don’t do enough of. Are you doing these enough?

  1. Sleep
  2. Exercise and fresh air
  3. Face-to-face chat
  4. Offline hobbies
  5. Thinking and dreaming

How long is the right amount of time to spend on your screen?

There is no science-based answer to that. Just spend enough time on those five activities and your screen-time won’t be a problem.

What next?







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