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Sunday, May 27, 2018

How Sensory Processing Issues Affect Kids in School

From the Child Mind Institute

May 22, 2018

And what parents and teachers can do to help children in the classroom.

Your son’s second grade teacher calls to say she’s concerned about some of his behaviors in school:
  • He can’t sit still through a half-hour lesson and disrupts the class.
  • He often seems distracted and doesn’t pay attention to what she’s saying.
  • He bumps into kids in the lunch line, making them angry.
  • He can’t hold a pencil correctly, so he struggles with handwriting.
  • He gets upset when asked to switch from one activity to another.
  • He melts down during assemblies and has to leave the gym.

You had started noticing this type of behavior when your child was a toddler, but now it’s hurting his progress in school. You’ve been wondering if he might have ADHD. But his teacher tells you she thinks he may have sensory processing issues.

What are sensory processing issues?

Some kids seem to have trouble handling the information their senses take in—things like sound, touch, taste, sight, and smell. There are also two other less well-known senses that can be affected—the first is a sense of body awareness, while the second involves movement, balance, and coordination. Also, kids with sensory issues can be oversensitive to input, undersensitive to input, or both.

Overly sensitive kids respond easily to sensory stimulation and can find it overwhelming.

While sensory processing issues are not a learning disorder or official diagnosis, they can make it hard for children to succeed at school. For instance, overly sensitive kids respond easily to sensory stimulation and can find it overwhelming.

They may:
  • Be unable to tolerate bright lights and loud noises like ambulance sirens;
  • Refuse to wear clothing because it feels scratchy or irritating-even after cutting out all the tags and labels-or shoes because they feel “too tight.”
  • Be distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear;
  • Be fearful of surprise touch, and avoid hugs and cuddling even with familiar adults;
  • Be overly fearful of swings and playground equipment;
  • Often have trouble knowing where their body is in relation to other objects or people;
  • Bump into people and things and appear clumsy;
  • Have trouble sensing the amount of force they’re applying; for example, they may rip the paper when erasing, pinch too hard or slam down objects.
  • Run off, or bolt, when they’re overwhelmed to get away from whatever is distressing them;
  • Have extreme meltdowns when overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, under-sensitive kids want to seek out more sensory stimulation.

They may:
  • Have a constant need to touch people or textures, even when it’s not socially acceptable;
  • Not understand personal space even when kids the same age are old enough to understand it;
  • Have an extremely high tolerance for pain;
  • Not understand their own strength;
  • Be very fidgety and unable to sit still;
  • Love jumping, bumping and crashing activities;
  • Enjoy deep pressure like tight bear hugs;
  • Crave fast, spinning and/or intense movement;
  • Love being tossed in the air and jumping on furniture and trampolines.

You can see that these behaviors could be confused with the grade-schoolers who are undersensitive may display “negative behaviors” including what looks like hyperactivity, when in fact they’re seeking input.

And, in fact, many of the behaviors of kids with sensory problems overlap with symptoms of ADHD, from trouble sitting still or concentrating to melting down when they are expected to make a transition from one activity (especially one they are enjoying) to another.

This is one reason it’s important that kids not be diagnosed with ADHD after a cursory visit to the pediatrician’s office, without careful use of interviews and rating scales to get a detailed picture of his behavior. Some kids with ADHD also have sensory issues.

A 2009 study found that 1 in every 6 children has sensory issues that make it hard to learn and function in school. While sensory processing issues are often seen in autistic children, they can also be found in those with ADHD, OCD and other developmental delays—or with no other diagnosis at all.


How can you help your child with sensory processing issues do better in school?

There is no medication to treat sensory processing issues, but there are therapies, as well as practical changes you can make at school and home to help your child feel and do better.

Occupational therapists (or OTs) are the specialists who work with kids who have sensory issues. The majority of OTs work in schools, though you can also find them in private practice. They engage kids in physical activities that are designed to regulate their sensory input.

You and your child’s teacher can discuss changes you can make to help him be more comfortable, secure and able to focus in the classroom.

For instance:
  • Make sure his chair is a good fit for him. When he’s sitting at his desk, he should be able to put his feet flat on the floor and rest his elbows on the desk.
  • For the child who needs to move a bit, you might try an inflated seated cushion or a pillow from home so he can both squirm and stay in his seat.
  • Some kids are better off if they sit close to the teacher. However, if your child is easily distracted by noise, he may end up turning around often to where the noise is coming from.
  • If possible, eliminate buzzing and flickering fluorescent lighting.
  • Make sure he’s not sitting next to distracting sources of noise.
  • Have the OT work with him on knowing where his body is in relation to other people and things and the idea of personal space.
  • Provide sensory breaks such as walking in circles, jumping on a mini-trampoline and sucking on sour candy so he gets the input he craves and doesn’t bump into others.
  • Allow for fidgets and chewable items, available in OT catalogues, to provide input.
  • Have the OT work with him on both gross and fine motor skills so he’s more confident, whether he’s in gym class or taking notes.
  • To avoid meltdowns or bolting, allow him to skip school assemblies, or sit near a door so that he can take breaks in the hallway with a teacher when he starts to feel himself getting overwhelmed.
  • If the cafeteria is too stimulating, see about having him and one or more lunch buddies eat in a quieter room with a teacher or aide.
  • Have a clear visual schedule posted with plenty of preparation for transitions.

With support and accommodations from an understanding teacher, and perhaps work with an OT, your child with sensory processing issues can be primed for success in class, on the playground and with friends.

Parent Perceptions May Contribute to Placebo Problem in Autism

From Spectrum News

By Nicholette Zeliadt
May 1, 2017

Parents of children with autism report substantial improvement in their children’s behaviors when they participate in a study, even when the children are not receiving a treatment, a new study suggests (1). By contrast, clinician ratings of the children’s autism features do not vary.

Wishful thinking: Parents of children with autism may report improvements
even when their child is in the placebo group of a trial.

It’s unclear why the parents’ and clinicians’ ratings do not agree.

“We don’t know if the kids changed a little or if the parents just thought they changed,” says lead investigator Catherine Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

In either case, the findings suggest that just participating in research can influence parent responses. These gradual shifts in parents’ perception of their children’s difficulties may contribute to the large placebo effect seen in autism trials. The study was published 12 April in Autism Research.

The findings were unexpected: Lord and her colleagues set out to test sensors worn on a child’s body to record language use, movements and other behaviors. They wanted to see how feasible it is for parents to keep these sensors on their children for eight weeks — the typical length of a clinical trial.

They also planned to compare the sensor data with parent reports of the children’s behavior. The children in the study continued with any existing treatments, but received no additional therapy.

To their surprise, the researchers found that some parents reported improvements in their children’s behaviors.

“We didn’t expect that anything would change,” says Rebecca Jones, assistant professor of neuroscience in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “Coming to our clinic and participating in a study and all that goes along with it — that somehow potentially impacted how parents viewed their child’s behavior.”

Non-Treatment Response

Parents of 20 children with autism visited Lord’s clinic in New York to complete five questionnaires about their children’s social difficulties, repetitive behaviors and mood. The researchers recorded 12-minute videos of each child playing with a research assistant.

They also trained the parents to operate two wearable devices: the LENA system, which records the child’s language use, and a wristband that monitors movements, heart rate and sweat levels.

Once a day for the following eight weeks, parents rated their child’s irritability, stress levels and disruptive behavior from home, using a smartphone app. At the end of the eight weeks, the families returned to the clinic to repeat the questionnaires and videos. Clinicians who were unaware of the purpose of the study viewed the videos and rated each child’s autism features.

At least 80 percent of parents reported improvements in their children on two of the questionnaires at the second clinic visit. Total scores improved by 29 percent on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist, particularly in the areas of hyperactivity, irritability and inappropriate speech; scores also improved by 7 percent on the Social Responsiveness Scale, which measures social and communication difficulties.

“Significant change in two caregiver ratings suggests that improvements may be seen over time in a research study regardless of whether any treatment is provided,” says Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, who was not involved in the study. “It’s useful to know that this non-specific change can be substantial, even in the absence of treatment.”

Placebo Problem

Parent responses did not change significantly on the other three questionnaires, which measure mood, repetitive and other behaviors. Their responses also did not change significantly on the smartphone questions.

Clinicians did not detect any significant changes over time in the children’s autism features.

That could either mean that their ratings of the children’s behaviors are more accurate than parent ratings, or that they do not detect subtle changes that parents pick up, Veenstra-VanderWeele says.

In either case, this result is at odds with previous findings from clinical trials.

“I find that surprising, because that is contrary to what is usually the case,” says John Jay Gargus, director of the Center for Autism Research and Translation at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study. “In real clinical trials, where you set up a placebo group, the clinical assessments also show the placebo effect.”

Lord says one explanation is that the clinicians in her study were not expecting the children to change, whereas in a clinical trial there may be an implicit expectation of improvement because some children receive treatment.

Autism trials may be especially vulnerable to the placebo effect because the condition is diagnosed behaviorally and lacks biological markers.

Children’s behaviors also naturally fluctuate, further compounding this problem. “Behavior can really truly change without treatment sometimes,” says Bryan King, vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study.

The placebo effect in parents may arise from their expectation of improvement, which is reinforced by repeated interactions with researchers, increasing familiarity with questionnaires, or the training and education gained by participating in research.

The new study cannot be interpreted as detecting a true placebo effect, however, because it lacked a control group of children whose parents completed questionnaires but did not visit the clinic.

Lord and her team are still analyzing the data captured by the sensors, and plan to publish those results.

  1. Jones R.M. et al. Autism Res. Epub ahead of print (2017) PubMed

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Dramatic Rise in ADHD Medication Mishaps Among Kids, Report Finds

From ABC News

By Dr. Chantel Strachan
May 23, 2018

The growing number of young people taking attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) medications has sparked an alarming rise in child and teen overdoses, according to a significant new study published this week in the Pediatrics.

Nationwide, more than 156,000 calls were placed to poison control centers for exposure to ADHD drugs among those 19 or younger between 2000 and 2014, according to the study – an average of 200 calls a week or 29 calls a day, researchers reported.

About three quarters of those calls involved children under 12. That figure includes a combination of kids six years old or younger getting into someone else’s medication bottles as well as older children taking too much of a medication prescribed to them, according to the study.

The majority of the calls were about boys, according to the study, and 82 percent of the drug exposures were unintentional, as opposed to kids taking an inappropriate amount of their own ADHD meds.

Experts say that about six million children in the United States have been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and many of them are on stimulant medications.

Researchers said that the majority of the calls to poison control centers involved two class of drugs: methylphenidate, which includes brand names like Ritalin and Concerta, and amphetamine, which includes brand names like Adderall.

Potential adverse effects from stimulants include rapid heart rates, irritability, drowsiness, and high blood pressure. Serious health outcomes -- yes, including death – can occur with stimulant overdoses, but they were most commonly seen in those who intentionally misused the medication.

Good Morning America’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton told Robin Roberts on Wednesday that the risks of ADHD medication must be balanced with the good they are doing for so many American children.

“This is a class of medications that is first-line FDA-approved to treating kids and teens with ADHD,” Ashton said. “They are stimulants, so they increase activation in the brain, they increase brain waves – very, very helpful. But like any medication they have a long list of side effects and they are associated with an increased risk of dependence and or abuse.”

Yet the benefits if properly prescribed can be significant she said.

“These medications are described as turning the lights on for someone who is trying to work in the dark, so it’s about balancing those risks and benefits.”

Chantel Strachan, M.D. is a second year internal medicine resident at the University of Connecticut who works in the ABC News Medical Unit.

The Slow and Fast Assault on Public Education

From the Boston Review

By Henry A. Giroux
May 14, 2018

Since Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, there have been few occasions to feel hopeful about politics. But now we are witnessing a proliferation of causes for hope, as brave students from Parkland, Florida, and equally courageous teachers throughout the United States lead movements of mass demonstrations, walkouts, and strikes.

The United States is in the midst of a crisis of values, ethics, and politics. It has been decades in the making, produced largely by a neoliberal system that has subordinated all aspects of social life to the dictates of the market while stripping assets from public goods and producing untenable levels of inequality. What we are now living through is the emergence of a new political formation in which neoliberalism has put on the mantle of fascism.

The assault on public education, the slow violence of teacher disenfranchisement, and the fast violence of guns can only be understood as part of a larger war on liberal democracy.

Amidst this cataclysm, public schools have been identified as a major threat to the conservative ruling elite because public education has long been integral to U.S. democracy’s dependence on an informed, engaged citizenry. Democracy is predicated on faith in the capacity of all humans for intelligent judgment, deliberation, and action, but this innate capacity must be nurtured.

The recognition of this need explains why the United States has, since its earliest days, emphasized the value of public education at least as an ideal. An education that teaches one to think critically and mediate charged appeals to one’s emotions is key to making power accountable and embracing a mature sense of the social contract.

Now, as our public schools are stretched to their breaking, their students and teachers are leading the call for a moral awakening. Both argue that the crisis of public schooling and the war on youth are related, and that the assaults on public schooling can only be understood as part of a larger war on liberal democracy.

No one movement or group can defeat the powerful and connected forces of neoliberal fascism, but energized young people and teachers are helping to open a space in which change looks more possible than at any time in the recent past.

The Parkland students have embraced a grassroots approach and teachers are following their lead. Both are primed for action and are ready to challenge those eager to dismantle the public education system. They recognize that education is a winning issue because most Americans still view it as a path through which their children can gain access to decent jobs and a good life.

The usual neoliberal bromides advocating privatization, charter schools, vouchers, and teaching for the test have lost all legitimacy at a moment when the ruling elite act with blatant disregard for the democratizing ethos that has long been a keystone of our society.

All of the states in which teachers have engaged in wildcat strikes, demonstrations, and protests have been subject to the toxic austerity measures that have come to characterize the neoliberal economy. In these states, teachers have faced low and stagnant wages, crumbling and overfilled classrooms, lengthening work days, and slashed budgets that have left them without classroom essentials such as books and even toilet paper—necessities that, in many cases, teachers have purchased themselves with their paltry salaries.

It is significant that teachers have refused to confine their protests to the immediate needs of their profession or the understandable demand for higher wages. Rather, they have couched these demands within a broader critique of the war on public goods, calling repeatedly for more funding for schools in order to provide students with decent conditions for learning.

Likewise, students protesting gun violence have contextualized their demands for gun control by addressing the roots of gun violence in state violence and political and economic disenfranchisement. Refusing to be silenced by politicians bought and sold by the NRA, these students have called for a vision of social justice rooted in the belief that they can not only challenge systemic oppression, but can change the fundamental nature of an oppressive social order.

They recognize that they have not only been treated as disposable populations written out of the script of democracy, they also are capable of using the new tools of social media to surmount the deadening political horizons preached by conventional media outlets and established politicians.

The attack on public education is one side of the neoliberal ledger. The other side is the explosion of the punishing state with its accelerated apparatuses of incarceration and militarization.

What is so promising about the student-led movement is that not only is it exposing the politicians and gun lobbies that argue against gun control and reframe the gun debate while endangering the lives of young people, they have also energized millions of youth by encouraging a sense of individual and collective agency. They are asking their peers to mobilize against gun violence, vote in the midterm November elections, and be prepared for a long struggle against the underlying ideologies, structures, and institutions that promote death-dealing violence in the United States.

As Charlotte Alter pointed out in TIME:

"They envision a youth political movement that will address many of the other issues affecting the youngest Americans. [Parkland student leader David] Hogg says he would like to have a youth demonstration every year on March 24, harnessing the power of teenage anger to demand action on everything from campaign-finance reform to net neutrality to climate change."

This statement makes clear that these young people recognize that the threat they face goes far beyond the gun debate and that what they need to address is a wider culture of cruelty, silence, and indifference. Violence comes in many forms, some hidden, many more spectacularized, cultivated, valued, eroticized, and normalized. Some are fast, and others are slow, and thus harder to perceive.

The key is to address the underlying structures and relations of power that give rise to this landscape of both spectacular gun violence and the everyday violence experienced by the poor, people of color, the undocumented, and other “disposable” people.

The attack on public education and the rights and working conditions of teachers is one side of the neoliberal ledger. The other side is the explosion of the punishing state with its accelerated apparatuses of containment, militarized police, borders, walls, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the creation of an armed society.

These issues need to be connected as part of a wider refusal to equate rapacious, neoliberal capitalism with democracy.

The Parkland student movement and the teacher walkouts have already advanced the possibilities of mass resistance by connecting the dots between the crises that each group is experiencing. The “slow violence” (to borrow Rob Nixon’s term) of teacher disenfranchisement needs to be understood in relation to the fast violence that has afflicted students, both of which arise from a state that has imported the language of perpetual war into its relationship with its citizens.

As Judith Levine points out, every public sphere has been transformed into a virtual war zone, “a zone of permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence.”

In the face of this, the need is for disruptive social movements that call for nothing less than the restructuring of U.S. society. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., this means a revolution in values, a shift in public consciousness, and a change in power relations and public policies.

The Parkland students and the teachers protesting across the nation are not only challenging the current attacks on public education, they also share an effort in constructing a new narrative about the United States—one that reengages the public’s ethical imagination toward developing an equitable, just, and inclusive democracy.

Their protests point to the possibility of a new public imagination that moves beyond the narrow realm of specific interest to a more comprehensive understanding of politics that is rooted in a practice of open defiance to corporate tyranny. This is a politics that refuses “leftist” centrism, the extremism of the right, and a deeply unequal society modeled on the iniquitous precarity and toxic structures of savage capitalism.

This new political horizon foreshadows the need to organize new political formations, massive social movements, and a third political party that can make itself present in a variety of institutional, educational, social, and cultural spheres.

The teacher and student protests have made clear that real change can be made through mass collective movements inspired by hope in the service of a radical democracy.

This is a movement that must make education central to its politics and be willing to develop educational spheres which listen to and speak to the concrete problems that educators, students, minorities of color and class, and others face in a world moving into the abyss of tyranny.

The long-term success of the movements begun by the teachers and students will likely hinge on whether they connect with wider struggles for minority rights, economic justice, and social equality. If they open to a vision of shared struggle, they may find their way to a radical democratic recuperation that benefits all people whose needs are being sacrificed on the altar of neoliberal fascism.

What we have learned from the student and teacher demonstrations is that politics depends “on the possibility of making the public exist in the first place” and that what we share in common is more important than what separates us.

At a time when tyranny is on the rise and the world seems deprived of radical imagination, such courageous acts of mass resistance are a welcome relief and hopeful indicator of an energetic struggle to secure a democratic future.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Originalist Account of Education as a Federal Constitutional Right

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
April 19, 2018

The final published draft of The Constitutional Compromise to Guarantee Education, 70 Stanford Law Review 735, is now available.

The abstract offers this summary:

"Although the U.S. Supreme Court refused to recognize education as a fundamental right in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Court in several other cases has emphasized the possibility that the Constitution might afford some protection for education. New litigation is attempting to fill that void.

This litigation comes at a perfect time. Segregation, poverty, and achievement gaps are all rising, while state courts and federal agencies have retreated from enforcing educational equity.

New litigation, however, has yet to offer a theory of why the Constitution should protect students’ educational rights, relying instead on the fact that the Court has consistently emphasized the importance of education. Prompting a significant doctrinal shift to protect education will require more than laudatory dicta. It will require a compelling affirmative constitutional theory.

This Article offers that theory. It demonstrates that the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment specifically intended to guarantee education as a right of state citizenship. This simple concept was obscured by the unusually complex ratification of the Amendment.

First, the Amendment required the assent of Confederate states that were no longer part of the Union. Second, Congress expressly indicated that it would not readmit those states to the Union until they ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and rewrote their state constitutions. Third, education was part of the deal: Congress permitted states to retain discretion over education but expected state constitutions to affirmatively guarantee education.

Through this process, education became an implicit right of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause. As a right of state citizenship and consistent with historical practices and goals, this Article argues that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from partisan and other illegitimate manipulations of educational opportunity."

Download the full article here.

Brains of Young People with Severe Behavioral Problems are 'Wired Differently'

From the University of Bath
via ScienceDaily

April 30, 2018

Psychologists and neuroscientists: subtle differences in brain connectivity impact young people with conduct disorder.

Research published 1 May revealed new clues which might help explain why young people with the most severe forms of antisocial behaviour struggle to control and regulate their emotions, and might be more susceptible to developing anxiety or depression as a result.

The study, published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, used neuro-imaging methods to investigate young people with the condition 'Conduct Disorder' -- typified by symptoms that range from lying and truancy, through to physical violence and weapon use at its more extreme end.

Researchers from the universities of Bath (UK), Cambridge (UK) and the California Institute of Technology (USA) wanted to understand more about the wiring of the brain in adolescents with Conduct Disorder, and link connectivity to the severity of Conduct Disorder and 'psychopathic traits' -- the term used to define deficits in guilt, remorse and empathy.

Through functional MRI scans of young people with Conduct Disorder as well as typically-developing teens, the team analysed the amygdala -- a key part of the brain involved in understanding others' emotions -- and how it communicates with other parts of the brain.

Previous studies by the research team suggested that adolescents with Conduct Disorder find it difficult to recognise angry and sad facial expressions, and so the purpose of this experiment was to establish what goes wrong at a brain level that could explain this.

They found that youths with Conduct Disorder showed significantly lower amygdala responses to angry and sad faces. Patients with amygdala damage show a range of problems such as reading others' emotions and, given the similarities in behaviour between these patients and youths with Conduct Disorder, scientists had previously hypothesised that the amygdala might be damaged or dysfunctional in some way.

When the researchers analysed connectivity between the amygdala and the brain's prefrontal cortex -- the region responsible for decision making and behavioural inhibition -- they found surprising clues that could explain why certain groups of youths with Conduct Disorder find it difficult to control their emotions.

Contrary to previous thinking, youths with Conduct Disorder and high levels of psychopathic traits showed normal connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, whereas those with Conduct Disorder alone showed abnormal connectivity between these brain areas.

Dr. Graeme Fairchild, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, explained: "These results may explain why young people with Conduct Disorder, but without psychopathic traits, find it difficult to control their emotions -- especially strong negative emotions like anger."

The parts of the brain that are normally involved in regulating the emotional parts of the brain appear less able to do so in the youths with Conduct Disorder alone. Over time, this could lead to them developing co-morbid mental health problems like depression or anxiety, whereas youths with psychopathic traits might be protected from developing such problems.

"This study shows that there may be important differences between youths with high and low levels of psychopathic traits in the way the brain is wired. The findings could have clinical implications, because they suggest that psychological treatments that enhance emotion regulation abilities are likely to be more effective in the youths with Conduct Disorder alone, than in the psychopathic subgroup."

As an under-researched and often misunderstood condition, the team now hope their findings can feed into more targeted interventions to better help young people with Conduct Disorder and their families. This could involve neurofeedback methods which train young people to control activity in specific parts of their brains using MRI.

They are currently running a large-scale European study -- investigating sex differences in antisocial behaviour to investigate whether boys and girls with Conduct Disorder show similar or different brain abnormalities relative to typically developing boys and girls.

This latest study was funded by The Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council.

Journal Reference
  • Michael P Ewbank, Luca Passamonti, Cindy C Hagan, Ian M Goodyer, Andrew J Calder, Graeme Fairchild. Psychopathic traits influence amygdala–anterior cingulate cortex connectivity during facial emotion processing. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2018; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsy019

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Ups and Downs of Social Media

From the Blog "Usable Knowledge"
by the Harvard Graduate School of Education

By Leah Shafer
May 16, 2018

A new study teases out the emotions of social media, finding that teens generally focus on the positive.

Watch teenagers using social media, and you witness an emotional rollercoaster: they are intermittently ecstatic, furious, envious, heartbroken, charmed, anxious, obsessive, and bored.

Research has begun to zero in on nearly every part of this spectrum, with findings that run from alarming (screen time is linked to depression and suicide) to reassuring (many teens find social media empowering). But for those looking for a clear-cut "good or bad" verdict on social media, the reality is that it's a little of each — but generally a much more positive experience than many parents might think.

A new study finds that teenagers report feeling all kinds of positive and negative emotions when describing the same social media experiences — posting selfies, Snapchatting, browsing videos — but the majority rate their overall experiences as positive.

Understanding these nuances can help families better grasp their teens’ up-and-down experiences in the digital world, the study suggests, offering new insight on how best to support them.

A Study on Adolescent Social Media Use

In the study, adolescent social media expert Emily Weinstein analyzed surveyed responses from 568 high school students at a suburban public high school in the United States. The students, who were evenly split between female and male, were heavier users of social media than the average American teen: 98 percent said that they were online “almost constantly” or “several times a day,” compared to 80 percent of teens nationally.

Eighty-seven percent of these students used Instagram, 87 percent used Snapchat, and 76 percent used Facebook.

Teens felt empowered and excited when they shared important aspects of their identities with others. But they also worried about being judged by peers and expressed anxiety over not getting enough likes.

The surveys asked students to check off any of 11 listed emotions that they typically felt while using social media, as well as the emotions they believed their peers felt while using those apps.

Weinstein also analyzed data from 26 in-depth interviews with those surveyed (16 females and 10 males). These students walked the researchers through their experiences on Instagram and Snapchat, describing the content they saw and how they reacted to it.

A Spectrum of Positive and Negative Feelings — with Positive Prevailing

The study found that teens had four main ways of using social media — and although they acknowledged negative emotions from each, most described their experiences as generally positive.

Teenagers use social media:

  • for self-expression (sharing posts that portray who you are and what you care about);
  • for relational interactions (messaging and connecting with family, friends, and romantic interests);
  • for exploration (searching areas of interest); and,
  • for browsing (general scrolling through feeds and apps).

None of these modes of social media use resulted in purely negative emotions, as reported by teens. Each led to both positive and negative emotions.

  • In self-expression mode, teens felt empowered and excited when they shared important aspects of their identities with others, and they enjoyed looking back at their personal Instagram feeds to reflect on how they’d developed over time. But they also worried about being judged by peers and expressed anxiety over not getting enough likes.
  • For relational interactions, teens felt happy to stay connected with peers, and many actually strengthened offline relationships with friends and significant others through social media. They enjoyed keeping in touch with faraway family members, too. But they also felt overwhelmed by the number of messages they had to respond to, and many felt left out when they saw friends posting together without them.
  • When exploring, teens enjoyed learning more about their interests, such as cooking or sports, or exploring new passions, such as activism or gun control. But they also reported viewing distressing and graphic images and stories.
  • When browsing, teens often felt amused and inspired by the different photos and videos they came across. But they also saw things that made them envious, insecure, or sad: a peer with thousands of followers, a deluge of images of attractive people, or even posts expressing appreciation for a parent or sibling, if they personally didn’t have that type of familial relationship.

Despite this variety of emotions, most teens described their experiences in mainly positive terms, found Weinstein, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Seventy-two percent of the teens reported feeling happy on social media, 68.5 percent amused, 59.3 percent closer to friends, and 57.8 percent interested in the experience.

Only 6.7 percent reported feeling upset, 7.9 percent irritated, 10.2 percent anxious, 16.9 percent jealous, and 15.3 percent left out. And, 70 percent of the teens described their general experiences on social media using onlythe positive descriptors.

Just cutting teens off from social media entirely may not be the best solution, since that will likely cut them off from positive experiences as well.

For Families, Helping Teens Ride the Rollercoaster

As parents grapple with their own anxiety over teens’ smartphone use, they should keep in mind that many teens are having routinely positive experiences on social media. Yes, teens are aware of negative emotions — fear, distress, jealousy, but from their perspective, feelings of connection, amusement, and inspiration also abound.

Families also need to remember that many of these negative feelings are developmentally normal. “Self-disclosure, validation, and concerns about acceptance and belonging are core components of adolescent development and friendship that predate and are present in youths’ digital interactions,” writes Weinstein.

And, teens’ online experiences often mirror their offline strengths and struggles, so insecurity or anxiety may not stem solely from social media use.

Parents should take teens’ negative experiences seriously, especially if their mood or behavior has changed, or if these negative feelings are affecting daily activities. But cutting them off from social media entirely may not be the best solution, since that will likely cut them off from positive experiences as well.

At all points, families should talk to their teens about their experiences on social media. Figure out together what exactly they enjoy, and what challenges they are facing.

Oftentimes, parents and teens can come up with tailored solutions to unique challenges — unfollowing a certain account that contributes to a negative body image, or refraining from posting on a certain app that leads to anxiety, for example — that still allow teens to hold onto what they enjoy.