Social Media Use Linked to Brain Changes in Teens

Is social media a brain-changer? A new study has found that the frequent use of social media could be reshaping how adolescents’ brain develops. 

Teenagers who check their social media platforms more often were found to be more likely to be sensitive to general social rewards and punishments. 

The new study was conducted by neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina and took the first-of-its-kind approach to using brain scans. Published on Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, it is among the first attempts to capture changes to brain function correlated with social media use over a period of years.

The scientists conducted successive brain scans of middle schoolers between the ages of 12 and 15, a period of especially rapid brain development.

The researchers found that children who habitually checked their social media feeds at around age 12 showed a distinct trajectory, with their sensitivity to social rewards from peers heightening over time. Teenagers with less engagement in social media followed the opposite path, with a declining interest in social rewards.

Researchers tracked about 170 students. At the beginning of the study, they recorded how often the participants reported checking popular social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat – with responses varying from less than once to more than 20 times a day.

The participants then underwent yearly brain imaging sessions as they also completed a social incentive delay task that measures brain activity when anticipating social feedback from peers.

The effect of social media use on children and young adults is a fraught area of research, as parents and policymakers try to figure out the results of different experiments and research. Successive studies have added pieces to the puzzle, fleshing out the implications of a nearly constant stream of virtual interactions beginning in childhood.

This new study bluntly found that those who used social media more cared more about social rewards, peer reviews, Facebook likes, and things of that nature. Those who did not scroll as much did not care as much. 

But the authors of the study warn that the data just gives them insight into the trajectory of the kids’ brain changes. It doesn’t explain the magnitude or if these changes are helpful or harmful.

The study has important limitations, the authors acknowledge. Because adolescence is a period of expanding social relationships, the brain differences could reflect a natural pivot toward peers, which could be driving more frequent social media use.

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