Studies warn teens who check social media frequently may experience changes in brain development

A new study warns that frequent social media checking by adolescents is linked to changes in brain development as they grow older.

Research published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics found that over time, with frequent and increased use of social media, adolescents’ brains may become more sensitive in predicting social rewards and punishments.

“The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more often become hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” study co-author Eva Telzer, of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said in a statement.

In the study, the scientists followed nearly 170 students recruited from public middle schools in rural North Carolina for three years.

At the start of the study, the researchers tracked how often participants checked popular social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat) and responses ranged from less than one to more than 20 times a day.

Participants were then subjected to annual neuroimaging sessions as they completed a social incentive delay task that measured brain activity while waiting for social feedback from their peers.

“While this increased sensitivity to social feedback may encourage future compulsive social media use, it may also reflect a possible adaptive behavior that will enable young people to navigate an increasingly digital world,” said study co-author Maria Maza.

Scientists say that likes, comments, notifications and messages on social media platforms provide a constant and unpredictable flow of social feedback.

“These social inputs are frequent, inconsistent, and often rewarding, making them particularly powerful reinforcers that can condition users to repeatedly check social media,” said Kara Fox, another author of the study.

The study found that participants who acquired the habit of checking showed marked developmental changes in their brains.

The researchers found specific changes in brain regions involving “motivational and cognitive control networks” in response to predicting social rewards and punishments in these participants, compared with those engaged in unorthodox controlling behaviors.

Previous research has reported that around 80 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds check their mobile devices at least hourly, and 35 percent of teens almost constantly use at least one of the top five social media platforms.

The new research suggests that repeated use of such platforms by 12- to 13-year-olds may be linked to changes in how their brains develop over a three-year period.

The brains of adolescents who check social media frequently — about 15 times a day — become particularly sensitive to social feedback, the researchers say.

“Most adolescents start using technology and social media during one of the most important periods for brain development in our lifetime,” said study author Mitch Prinstein, another of the American Psychological Association.

Dr. Added Printstein.

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