Frequent and habitual checking of social media by teens is linked to changes in brain development as they get older, a new study has warned.
The research, published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, found that adolescent brains may become more sensitive to anticipating social rewards and punishments over time with frequent and increasing use of social media.
“The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more frequently are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” study co-author Eva Telzer of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said in a statement.
For the study, the scientists followed about 170 students recruited from public middle schools in rural North Carolina for three years.
The researchers tracked at the start of the study how often participants reported checking popular social media platforms — Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat — with responses ranging from less than once to more than 20 times a day.
The participants then underwent annual brain imaging sessions and also completed a social incentive delay task that measures brain activity by anticipating social feedback from peers.
“While this increased sensitivity to social feedback may promote compulsive social media use in the future, it could also reflect potential adaptive behavior that will enable adolescents to navigate an increasingly digital world,” said study co-author Maria Maza.
Scientists say that likes, comments, notifications and messages on social media platforms generate a constant and unpredictable stream of social commentary.
“These social posts are frequent, inconsistent, and often rewarding, making them especially powerful reinforcers that can condition users to check social media repeatedly,” explained Kara Fox, another study author.
The study found that participants who engaged in habitual checking behaviors showed distinct changes in brain development.
In these participants, the researchers found particular changes in brain regions comprising “cognitive and motivational control networks” in response to anticipation of social rewards and punishments compared to those who engaged in non-habitual control behaviors.
Previous studies have shown that about 80 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds report checking their mobile devices at least every hour and 35 percent of teens report using at least one of the top five social media platforms. almost constantly.
The new research suggests that repeated use of such platforms by 12- to 13-year-olds may be linked to changes in the way their brains develop over a three-year period.
The researchers say the brains of teens who checked social media frequently, about 15 times a day, became particularly sensitive to social feedback.
“Most teens start using technology and social media at one of the most important periods for brain development in our lifetimes,” said another study author, Mitch Prinstein, of the American Psychological Association.
“Our research demonstrates that controlling social media behaviors could have important and long-lasting consequences for adolescent neural development, which is critical for parents and policy makers to consider when understanding the potential benefits and harms associated with technology use in adolescents,” said Dr. Printstein added.