Is social media creating generations of social recluses? What happened to playing kickball, board games, and tag? For those of you who are over 35 years old, you probably have vivid memories of running around outside with friends, laughing and shouting. However, those of you who are part of the “millennials” generation are probably asking yourselves, “What the heck is kickball?” Well, I’ll tell you…Once upon a time, before the iPhone, social media, or even the internet, kids used to interact face-to-face by talking, playing, and laughing. I mean, actually laughing… out loud. Not typing “LOL” or texting a laughing emoji. Through this in-person interaction, young people developed certain skills such as reading non-verbal cues, engaging in spontaneous and reciprocal conversation, identifying facial emotion, etc. They learned how to entertain themselves using creativity and imagination, rather than be passively entertained by a device.
Unfortunately, a lack of social skills is not the worst potential effect of our social media obsession. Social Media Anxiety Disorder (SMAD) is a diagnostic term now being used among mental health care professionals to describe a severe form of anxiety related specifically to social media overuse. It is thought to be a type of social anxiety. While there is no formal diagnosis of this disorder in the DSM-5, its clinical presentation is becoming more prevalent among younger populations. Researchers have begun developing psychologically sound questionnaires that distinguish between healthy and unhealthy social media use. There has even been an abundance of studies conducted that show the harmful effects of social media on mental health.
So, what exactly is Social Media Anxiety Disorder? Most people with social media accounts do not become anxious or stressed when they’re unable to constantly check their notifications throughout the day. However, for some, it is an addiction. Those who have SMAD can experience severe anxiety if they are away from their social media accounts for just a few minutes. They may forgo social events with friends and family just so they can remain active online. Developing emotional attachments with their online buddies, whom they’ve never actually met, is also a possible sign of SMAD. Additional signs and symptoms of SMAD include:
Research has shown that anxiety is not the only mental health issue that can result from obsessive social media use. Depression, impulse control disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, paranoia, and suicidality have also been found to be among the possible impairments related to SMAD. In short, while technology has made our lives more convenient and entertaining, it has also created a new wave of problems regarding early social development and emotional wellbeing. So instead of texting your friend about your day, or posting a status update on Facebook, meet up for lunch and have an actual conversation.
It was previously believed that our brain was a fixed and hard-wired organ, incapable of change or growth. We now know that our brain is constantly changing, both functionally and anatomically. New brain cells are continually being born, and new connections between those brain cells are generated. These changes in neural connections are called “neuroplasticity.” In general, neuroplasticity is a way for your brain to fine-tune itself for efficiency. Neurofeedback is a non-invasive intervention that harnesses neuroplasticity and retrains the brain to perform at an optimal level.
Our brain consists of billions of brain cells, or neurons, that communicate with each other. The messages sent between neurons essentially control our emotions and our behavior. As our brain cells communication, tiny electrical pulses emanate, which are displayed in the form of brainwaves. A host of information can be revealed through brainwaves, such as mood states, thought habits, stress levels, and overall brain function. By changing brain activity, or by changing how one area of the brain talks to another, we can improve attention, better control emotions, and modify behavior. This is where neurofeedback comes in.
Neurofeedback is a way to train our brain activity. It is based on a specific type of learning called operant conditioning. According to this principle, behavior that is followed by positive consequences is likely to be repeated, and behavior followed by negative consequences is likely to weaken (Skinner, 1938). Thus, operant conditioning reshapes behavior through learned consequences, either negative or positive. With neurofeedback, this is accomplished by pairing information about brain activity with positive or negative outcomes. For example, brainwave patterns are monitored through EEG sensors that are placed on the scalp. This “feedback” is then provided through a catalyst such as a video game. When an optimal level of brainwave functioning is produced, the individual is rewarded by gaining points in the video game. When brain activity becomes dysregulated, the individual may lose points. After repeated exposure to this negative and positive feedback, our brain learns to naturally function in that optimal state.
Many different psychiatric and neurocognitive disorders are marked by specific patterns of brain activity. Neurofeedback can be used to alter these pathological brainwave patterns, thus decreasing symptoms. For instance, a child with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) tends to have very low frequency theta brainwaves and fewer high frequency beta brainwaves in certain areas of the brain (Monastra, 2002). Neurofeedback can change these problematic frequency levels. Over the course of neurofeedback training, the child would be rewarded each time he/she demonstrates beta waves. Through this process of operant conditioning, the child’s brain learns to increase beta waves and suppress theta waves on a regular basis.
Neurofeedback has been effectively used in the treatment of anxiety, depression, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, sleep disorders, and more. There is not only a solid body of research showing it to be an effective treatment, research also supports the long-term benefits of neurofeedback (VanDoren, 2018). The significant improvement in social, emotional, and behavioral functioning through neurofeedback has generated much interest among scientific communities, which has led to the continuation of empirical research.
Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.
Monastra, V, Monastra, D., George, S. (2002). The Effects of Stimulant Therapy, EEG Biofeedback, and Parenting Style on the Primary Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 27: 231-249.
VanDoren, J., Arns, M., Heinrich, H., Volleybrecht, M., Strehl, U., Loo, K. (2019). Sustained effects of neurofeedback in ADHD: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 28: 293-305.