Frequent Social Media Checking May Impact a Young Person’s Brain

A new study suggests that the more young people check their social media feeds, the more they become hypersensitive to peer feedback.

Key takeaways:
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    Social media platforms offer a way for people to connect with friends and family.
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    Research has shown that excessive social media use among young people may be associated with negative mental and physical health effects.
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    A new study suggests that checking social media too much may impact brain development in adolescents.
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    The study authors say these results should be considered when determining the benefits and potential pitfalls of social media use among young teens.

Smartphones and social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram have revolutionized how people connect. But scientists are just beginning to understand the impact these devices and platforms may have on young people.

Previous 2021 research found an association between excessive smartphone use and health issues in adolescents and young adults. These included psychiatric, cognitive, and emotional issues, brain changes, and physical problems.

Looking deeper, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sought to reveal if frequent checking of social media impacted functional brain development in young people. Their research appears in JAMA Pediatrics.

The scientists recruited 169 sixth and seventh-grade students from a rural public school in North Carolina to conduct the study. At the time of recruitment, the students reported how frequently they checked their Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts. Their answers ranged from less than one time to over 20 times a day.

Over three years, the scientists had the participants undergo yearly brain imaging while completing a Social Incentive Task to measure brain activity when anticipating social feedback.

The students who habitually checked their social media showed lower neural sensitivity to social anticipation in several brain regions than those who didn’t have these checking behaviors. Moreover, brain scans showed increased activity in brain regions during social anticipation among students with frequent checking behaviors.

The study authors suggest frequent social media checking may be associated with shifts in the brain’s sensitivity to social reward and punishment feedback. Essentially, making them more sensitive to feedback from their peers. It may also impact psychological adjustment.

"Our research demonstrates that checking behaviors on 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."

Mitchell Prinstein Ph.D.

In a Chapel Hill article, Kara Fox, the study’s co-author and doctoral student in psychology said, “These social inputs are frequent, inconsistent, and often rewarding, making them especially powerful reinforcers that can condition users to check social media repeatedly.”

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