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Social media use alters the adolescent brain

Children often become active on social media platforms during their early adolescent years. This is a critical developmental period when the brain is especially sensitive to social feedback, and it is possible that the frequent checking of social media may affect the way in which adolescents’ brains respond to the world around them. 

A new study from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has now investigated adolescent neural development in relation to technology use over a three-year period, in order to identify links with habitual checking behavior. 

The researchers selected 169 participants (average age 12.9 years) from three public middle schools in rural North Carolina. At the start of the study, the sixth- and seventh-grade students completed a survey about how often they checked three popular social media platforms, namely Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Following this, they underwent yearly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains while completing the social incentive delay task, which measures brain activity while anticipating social feedback from peers.

Previous studies have shown that 78 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds check their mobile devices at least hourly, and 35 percent of teens report using at least one of the top five social media platforms almost constantly. In the current study, the number of times participants checked their social media feeds ranged between less than once to more than 20 times a day. 

The research findings, published in the JAMA, showed that 12- to 13-year olds who checked their social media feeds more frequently (more than 15 times per day) had different patterns of neural development in certain brain areas than did those who checked less frequently. Over the three-year period, participants who checked more frequently also became more sensitive to social feedback in the form of rewards and punishments. 

“The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more often are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” said Eva Telzer, a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s psychology and neuroscience department and a corresponding author.

“While this increased sensitivity to social feedback may promote future compulsive social media use, it could also reflect a possible adaptive behavior that will allow teens to navigate an increasingly digital world,” noted Maria Maza, a doctoral student in psychology and one of the study’s two lead authors.

Social media platforms provide adolescents with unprecedented opportunities for social interactions during a critical developmental period when the brain is especially sensitive to social feedback. Furthermore, these platforms deliver a constant and unpredictable stream of social feedback in the form of likes, comments, messages and notifications. This pattern of delivery often proves irresistibly attractive to users, who eagerly await any form of communication. 

“These social inputs are frequent, inconsistent and often rewarding, making them especially powerful reinforcers that can condition users to check social media repeatedly,” said Kara Fox, co-lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology. 

The results of this cohort study, one of the first long-term studies on adolescent neural development and technology use, suggest that social media checking behaviors in early adolescence may be associated with changes in the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments, explained the study authors. They suggest that further research is needed on the long-term associations between social media use, adolescent neural development, and psychological adjustment in order to understand the effects of this ubiquitous influence on development in today’s adolescents.

“Most adolescents begin using technology and social media at one of the most important periods for brain development during our lifetime,” said co-author Mitch Prinstein, who also serves as the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association. 

“Our research demonstrates that checking behaviors on social media could have long-standing and important consequences for adolescents’ neural development, which is critical for parents and policy-makers to consider when understanding the benefits and potential harms associated with teen technology use.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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