Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Study finds social media use may affect youth brain development

Data showed an association between social media use and changes in brain development, though researchers were unable to determine the underlying cause of the changes.
Person on smart phone.

Story at a glance

  • Youth who habitually check social media are more sensitive to peer feedback, data show.

  • However, whether these changes are harmful or beneficial has yet to be determined.

  • Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to measure youths’ anticipation of social feedback.

Advocates and parents have raised concerns about the potential health effects of social media on teens and children for years.

A new study carried out in rural North Carolina shows habitually checking social media platforms may lead to long-term changes in adolescent brain development. 

Specifically, researchers found different social media-checking habits were linked with changes in youths’ brains, altering how they respond to the outside world. 

Data suggest those who checked the sites and apps more than 15 times per day became hypersensitive to peer feedback.

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Findings are based on three years’ worth of data collected from 169 students with an average age of around 13. Participants were initially asked how often they check Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, with answers ranging from less than once per day to more than 20 times daily. 

Teens often begin using these platforms at one of the most important times for brain development, when it becomes especially sensitive to rewards and punishments, authors explained.

For three years, youth underwent annual functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. During these scans, researchers measured adolescents’ neural responses to a cue, measuring their social feedback anticipation. 

Those who habitually checked the platforms initially showed hypoactivation in certain brain regions and increasing sensitivity to potential social cues over time. In contrast, those with nonhabitual checking behaviors also showed initial hypoactivation, but decreased sensitivity to these cues over time.

“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,” said author Maria Maza in a release. Maza is a doctoral student in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill. 

Because these platforms offer a near-constant, unpredictable and often rewarding stream of social feedback via likes, comments and messages, they serve as “powerful reinforcers that can condition users to check social media repeatedly,” added author Kara Fox, also of UNC, Chapel Hill. 

Previous research has shown 78 percent of youth between the ages 13 and 17 report checking their devices at least hourly and nearly half check them almost constantly. 

Researchers conclude more studies are needed on the long-term associations between social media use, adolescent neural development and psychological adjustment. The current findings only reflect the trajectory of brain changes, and not their magnitude, or whether changes will be good or bad.

Social media use habits were also only evaluated at one time point, meaning the study could not capture how they changed over time or other factors that could potentially affect the brain. 

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