Routinely checking social media could make an adolescent’s brain more sensitive to social rewards and punishments over time, according to a new study in JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found changes in the brains of adolescents who habitually check social media.

“The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more often are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” said Eva Telzer, a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s psychology and neuroscience department and a corresponding author, in the university’s news release on the study. 

The study involved 169 students who were in sixth or seventh grade in rural North Carolina when the research began. The team tracked them for three years, beginning when they were 12 or 13, using functional magnetic resonance imaging as they played a computerized game that rewarded them with smiling faces or punished them with frowns.

Why kids’ screen time might be a smaller problem than you think — and parents’ might be a bigger one
Teens and tech: New report sees differences in usage depending on family structure

They were initially asked how often they check Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, then were assigned to groups based on their answers. Each year, their brains were scanned to see what happened as they awaited social feedback from peers.

The researchers found that those who checked social media more frequently were more apt to care about social rewards and that the sensitivity to it grew over time.

One of the study’s two lead authors, doctoral student Maria Maza, said the “increased sensitivity to social feedback may promote future compulsive social media use,” but noted that “it could also reflect a possible adaptive behavior that will allow teens to navigate an increasingly digital world.”

The researchers note that social media delivers many social inputs, some rewarding, some not. “These social inputs are frequent, inconsistent and often 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,” in a written statement.  

According to the university, “Other studies have shown that 78% of 13- to 17-year-olds report checking their mobile devices at least hourly; 35% of teens report using at least one of the top five social media platforms almost constantly.”

The study found that adolescents who checked social media more than 15 times a day became more sensitive to social feedback, as shown in the brain scans.

Co-author Mitch Prinstein, also the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association, said the study shows that frequently checking social media “could have long-standing and important consequences for adolescents’ neural development, which is critical for parents and policy-makers to consider when understanding the benefits and potential harms associated with teen technology use.”

Who is responsible for monitoring kids’ social media use? Government? Schools? Parents?
Is social media as bad for teens as we thought it was?

According to The New York Times, “The study has important limitations, the authors acknowledge. Because adolescence is a period of expanding social relationships, the brain differences could reflect a natural pivot toward peers, which could be driving more frequent social media use.”

View Comments

“We can’t make causal claims that social media is changing the brain,” Telzer told the Times, adding that “teens who are habitually checking their social media are showing these pretty dramatic changes in the way their brains are responding, which could potentially have long-term consequences well into adulthood, sort of setting the stage for brain development over time.”

Per the Times, “The findings do not capture the magnitude of the brain changes, only their trajectory. And it is unclear, authors said, whether the changes are beneficial or harmful. Social sensitivity could be adaptive, showing that the teenagers are learning to connect with others; or it could lead to social anxiety and depression if social needs are not met.”

Adolescence is a time when critical brain development and high social media use both occur, Dr. Neha Chaudhary, chief medical officer of BeMe Health and child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told CNN. Chaudhary was not involved in the study.

Chaudhary said that the study could indicate that social media changes adolescent brains, but it is also possible some of the students were at a stage in brain development that led them to use social media more.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.