Social Media Use in Children Linked to Significant Brain Changes

Person on phone with Twitter open

A new study from the University of North Carolina shows children and teens who frequently check social media may become more sensitive in the long term to “social feedback” in the form of “likes” and “dislikes” at a time when the brain is experiencing significant developmental changes.

In the study, published at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics, researchers Maria Maza, et al, investigated whether the frequency with which middle-school age children check their Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat social media accounts is associated with long-term changes in brain development as they mature further into adolescence.

Researchers explained the study “aimed to examine whether social media use is associated with longitudinal changes in functional brain development across adolescence, a developmental period characterized by peak social media use and heightened neural sensitivity to social feedback from peers.”

Investigators introduced their study by noting the significant place social media has assumed in the lives of adolescents:

In the span of a generation, social media has dramatically changed the landscape of adolescent development, providing unprecedented opportunities for social interactions around the clock. Social media provides a constant and unpredictable stream of social inputs to adolescents during a critical developmental period when the brain becomes especially sensitive to social rewards and punishments. Motivated by the anticipation of this social feedback, adolescents’ constant, habitual checking of social media may alter neurodevelopment, significantly changing the ways in which the adolescent brain responds to its environment.

The researchers studied the magnetic resonance images (MRIs) of 169 sixth- and seventh-grade North Carolina public school students during a three-year period. Students self-reported the number of times per day they checked each of their social media platforms.

Results of the study showed students who checked their social media accounts habitually showed significant changes to the brain in areas that respond to anticipation of social rewards and punishments compared with those students whose social media checking behavior was nonhabitual.

“Our findings suggest that checking behaviors on social media in early adolescence may tune the brain’s sensitivity to potential social rewards and punishments,” the researchers observed. “Whereas individuals with habitual checking behaviors showed initial hypoactivation but increasing sensitivity to potential social cues over time, those with nonhabitual checking behaviors showed initial hyperactivation and decreasing sensitivity over time.”

“These results suggest that habitual checking of social media in early adolescence may be longitudinally associated with changes in neural sensitivity to anticipation of social rewards and punishments, which could have implications for psychological adjustment,” they explained, pointing out that social media platforms offer children and adolescents “unprecedented opportunities for social interactions during a critical developmental period when the brain is especially sensitive to social feedback.”

“Adolescents who engaged in high (habitual) checking behaviors showed distinct neural trajectories when anticipating social feedback compared with those who engaged in moderate or low (nonhabitual) checking behaviors,” the authors concluded, “suggesting that habitual social media checking early in adolescence is associated with divergent brain development over time.”

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Susan Berry, PhD is national education editor at The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].


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