Social media use linked to brain changes in teens, research shows
The effect of social media use on children is a difficult area of research, as parents and policy makers try to determine the outcomes of a large and already burgeoning experiment. Successive studies have added pieces to the puzzle, fleshing out the implications of an almost constant stream of virtual interactions beginning in childhood.
A new study by neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina is trying something new, by taking successive brain scans of middle schoolers aged 12 to 15, a period of particularly rapid brain development.
The researchers found that children who habitually checked their social media feeds around age 12 showed a distinct trajectory, with their sensitivity to social rewards from their peers increasing over time. Teens less engaged in social media followed the opposite path, with decreasing interest in social rewards.
The study, published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, is one of the first attempts to capture changes in brain function correlated with social media use over a period of years.
The study has significant limitations, acknowledge the authors. Because adolescence is a time of expanding social relationships, brain differences could reflect a natural pivot to peers, which could lead to more frequent use of social media.
“We can’t say causally that social media changes the brain,” said Eva H. Telzer, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and one of the authors. of the study.
But, she added, “teenagers who usually check their social media are showing these pretty dramatic changes in the way their brain responds, which could potentially have long-term consequences well into adulthood, setting sort of the ground for brain development over time.”
A team of researchers studied an ethnically diverse group of 169 sixth- and seventh-grade students at a middle school in rural North Carolina, dividing them into groups based on how often they reported checking Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook feeds. Snapchat.
By age 12, students were already showing distinct behavioral patterns. Regular users reported checking their feeds 15 or more times a day; moderate users checked between one and 14 times; non-habitual users checked less than once a day.
The subjects received full brain scans three times, about a year apart, while playing a computer game that offered rewards and punishments in the form of smiling or scowling peers.
While performing the task, frequent controllers showed increasing activation of three brain areas: the reward-processing circuits, which also respond to experiences such as making money or taking risks; brain regions that determine salience, selecting what stands out in the environment; and the prefrontal cortex, which helps with regulation and control.
The results showed that “teenagers who grow up checking social media more often become hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” Dr. Telzer said.
The results do not capture the magnitude of the brain changes, only their trajectory. And it’s not clear, according to the authors, whether the changes are beneficial or harmful. Social sensitivity could be adaptive, showing that adolescents learn to connect with others; or it could lead to social anxiety and depression if social needs are not met.
Social media researchers have cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions based on the findings.
“They show that how you use it at any given time in your life influences how your brain develops, but we don’t know by how much, or if that’s good or bad,” said Jeff Hancock, the founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, who was not involved in the study. He said many other variables could have contributed to these changes.
“What if these people joined a new team – a hockey team or a volleyball team – then they started having a lot more social interaction?” he said. It could be, he added, that researchers “are interested in the development of extroversion and that extroverts are more likely to check their social networks.”
He described the paper as “very sophisticated work”, contributing to research that has emerged recently showing that social media sensitivity varies from person to person.
“There are people who have a neurological condition that means they’re more likely to be attracted to frequent checkups,” he said. “We are not all the same, and we should stop thinking that social media is the same for everyone.”
Over the past decade, social media has reconfigured the central experiences of adolescence, a time of rapid brain development.
Almost all American teens interact via social media, with 97% logging on daily and 46% saying they are online “almost constantly”, according to the Pew Research Center. According to research, black and Latino teens spend more hours on social media than their white counterparts.
Researchers have documented a range of effects on children’s mental health. Some studies have linked social media use to depression and anxiety, while others have found few links. A 2018 study of lesbian, gay and bisexual teens found that social media gave them validation and support, but also exposed them to hate speech.
Experts who reviewed the study said that because the researchers only measured students’ social media use once, around age 12, it was impossible to know how it changed. over time or to rule out other factors that may affect brain development.
Without more information about other aspects of students’ lives, “it’s hard to discern how specific differences in brain development are to social media checking,” said brain development specialist Adriana Galvan. teenagers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who did not participate in the study.
Jennifer Pfeifer, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and co-director of the National Science Council on Adolescence, said: “All experience accumulates and is reflected in the brain.
“I think you want to put it in that context,” she said. “So many other experiences that teens have will also change the brain, so we don’t want to get into some sort of moral panic that using social media is changing the brains of teens.
Dr Telzer, one of the study’s authors, described the growing sensitivity to social feedback as “neither good nor bad”.
“It helps them connect with others and get rewards from things that are common in their social world, engaging in social interactions online,” she said.
“It’s the new normal,” she added. “It is important to understand how this new digital world influences adolescents. It can be associated with changes in the brain, but it can be good or bad. We don’t necessarily know the long-term implications yet.