Constant social media checking may affect functional brain development

Study shows habitual checking of social media may impact young adolescents’ brain development.


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In this generation, social media suddenly changed the landscape of adolescent development. Nowadays, smartphones and social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram have dramatically altered how people connect. But, the same has changed our brain development. Scientists noticed a remarkable change in adolescents’ brain development.

Social media provides a constant and unpredictable stream of social inputs to adolescents during a developmental period when the brain becomes sensitive to social rewards and punishments. It is well known that adolescence is the most critical stage for brain development. According to social feedback, adolescents’ constant, frequent social media checking may affect neurodevelopment, significantly changing how the adolescent brain responds to its environment.

To know how habitual social media behaviors alter adolescent brain development, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted exploratory whole-brain analyses to determine which brain regions showed the greatest differences in neural activation longitudinally. They also explored how adolescents’ frequency of checking behaviors on social media platforms is associated with longitudinal changes in functional brain development across adolescence.

Researchers performed a study where participants were enlisted from a larger, school-based study of 873 sixths and seventh-grade students from 3 public rural middle schools in North Carolina to participate in a longitudinal functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study. They enlisted 2 cohorts of participants 12 to 13 years of age across 2 years of the study, resulting in a sample size of 178 adolescents, among which 148 students for cohort 1 and 30 for cohort 2. Of the enlisted participants for cohort 1, 5 had exclusion criteria and not invited back. Across all waves, 25 participants provided written informed consent or asset, and University’s Institutional Review Board approved all study aspects.

Of 178 participants recruited at the age of 12 years, 169 participants met the inclusion criteria. Researchers tracked 169 participants over three years.

At the beginning of the study, participants reported how frequently they checked three popular social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Their answers ranged from less than once to more than 20 times a day. Participants undergo yearly brain imaging sessions and complete the social incentive delay task, which measures brain activity when anticipating peer feedback.

Maria Maza and two lead doctors of this study say that “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.”

“Social media platforms deliver a constant and unpredictable stream of social feedback in the form of likes, comments, notifications, and messages. These social inputs are frequent, inconsistent, and sometimes 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.

Other studies revealed that 78% of 13 to 17-year-olds report checking their mobile devices at least hourly, and 35% of teens report using at least one of the top five social media platforms almost constantly. The study suggests that checking social media platforms almost always. The study findings suggest that checking social media repeatedly among young teens ages 12 to 13 related to changes in how the brains of adolescents who checked social media more than 15 times per day became more sensitive to social feedback.

Adolescent social media usage has grown extensively in the past decade. All these studies suggest that social media behaviors in early adolescents, neural development, and neural sensitivity to potential social feedback. The result of this study suggests that social media checking behaviors in early adolescence may associate with changes in the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments. This study also reveals associations between social media use, adolescent neural development, and psychological adjustment is needed to understand the effects of social media influence on development for today’s adolescents.

Journal Reference:

  1. Maria T. Maza et al. Association of Habitual Checking Behaviors on Social Media With Longitudinal Functional Brain Development. JAMA Pediatr. DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4924


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