"Social Media Can Increase Your Child’s Brain Size…Or Can It?" by Director of Academic Support Michael Hoe
“Hold on, mom! ...clickclickclicktaptaptapbeepbeepbeep… What did you say?”
This has become an all too familiar situation to parents today, as clicktapbeeps of the “new” social networks (Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) have invaded our “normal,” daily conversations. Online social networking has been at the forefront of our minds as a distracting and potentially dangerous way for children to interact with people. Nonetheless, humans are innately social beings, and recent research conducted by Bickart and colleagues (2011) might indicate that larger and more complex social networks can actually increase the volume in specific regions of the brain.
The study’s participants included 58 adults between the ages of 19 and 83. The researchers used the brain imaging techniques combined with the Social Network Index (SNI), a tool to assess types of social relationships, to determine the size and complexity of the participants' social networks—examining measures such as frequency, variability, and closeness of interacting with their social peers. The results indicate that adults who scored higher on the SNI exhibited increased volume in the amygdala, the region of the brain most commonly associated with emotion, fear and other primitive responses. According to the researchers, the amygdala also helps to “identify, learn about and recognize socioemotional cues.” The implications of this study could be groundbreaking—providing a potential way to neurologically capitalize on the inherent social nature of humans. This is especially exciting since today’s younger generation has become increasingly reliant on social networking for daily communication. Furthermore, this study could serve as a potential proponent for the benefits of online social networks if they actually do increase useable areas of the brain such as the amygdala.
However, while this study is promising in examining how social networks might influence both brain volume and “people skills” of today’s developing children and adults, it is important to note that the SNI only accounts for in-person contact, and much of the scoring criteria are vague and too subjective to make any objective correlations. Furthermore, the relatively small sample size (58) and the large age range of the participants (19-83 years) makes it difficult to represent a “focused enough” sample in order to make a meaningful correlation between amygdala volume and social network size/complexity. The study also does not account for the technological social networks that today’s youth rely on or for overlapping contacts across different social networks. Thus, as of now, the findings presented in this study should be taken with a grain of salt.
So what does this mean for your child? Should face-to-face interaction be valued and emphasized more to humans today? (In my opinion, yes). Or, could technological social networking platforms actually nurture and develop our people skills? Either way, it is important to consider that human, face-to-face interactions are still widely prevalent in schools, work and other real-world contexts.
Ultimately, helping our students build and develop people skills in a comfortable, professional, and proficient manner should be a priority—regardless of the platform. In a world of shared Google Docs and study guides, electronic classroom threads, and other technological tools, in many ways, nothing can beat a good, old-fashioned, face-to-face meeting with a teacher for extra help. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge proponent of technology in education and think it has incredible use and power to enrich the learning experience. However, I always want to emphasize students seeking additional support in person from their teachers, from our Office of Academic Support, from their advisors, from their coaches, and from you, their parents. An effective in-person meeting is an invaluable experience for all parties involved that makes humans...well, humans. So maybe it’s time for a family vacation sans social networking-enabled devices…but don’t forget your camera.
Bickart, Kevin C, Christopher I Wright, Rebecca J Dautoff, Bradford C Dickerson, and Lisa
Feldman Barrett. “Amygdala Volume and Social Network Size in Humans.” Nature Neuroscience 14, no. 2 (December 26, 2010): 163–164. doi:10.1038/nn.2724.
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