Summary: Adolescents’ brains may become more sensitive when anticipating social rewards and punishments over time with increased social media usage. The findings reveal how social media usage could have important and long-standing consequences for brain development.
Source: UNC Chapel Hill
In one of the first long-term studies on adolescent neural development and technology use, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill report adolescents’ habitual checking of social media is linked with subsequent changes in how their brains respond to the world around them.
The study, published today in JAMA Pediatrics, reveals that adolescents’ brains may become more sensitive when anticipating social rewards and punishments over time with increased social media usage.
“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.
Researchers tracked 169 students recruited from public middle schools in rural North Carolina over three years. At the beginning of the study, participants reported how often 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 underwent yearly brain imaging sessions while completing the social incentive delay task, which measures brain activity when anticipating social feedback from peers.
“While this 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,” says Maria Maza, a doctoral student in psychology and one of the study’s two lead authors.
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 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.
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 findings suggest that checking social media repeatedly among young teens ages 12 to 13 may be associated with changes in how their brains develop over a three-year period. The brains of adolescents who checked social media often – more than 15 times per day, became more sensitive to social feedback.
“Most adolescents begin using technology and social media at one of the most important periods for brain development during our lifetime,” said co-author Mitch Prinstein, who also serves as the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association.
“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.”
Additional authors include Seh-Joo Kwon, a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience, and Jessica Flannery, a previous postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology and neuroscience.
Funding: The research was supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Winston Family Foundation through its Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development established at UNC-Chapel Hill.
About this brain development research news
Author: Kia Bell Source: UNC Chapel Hill Contact: Kia Bell – UNC Chapel Hill Image: The image is in the public domain
To explore how adolescents’ frequency of checking behaviors on social media platforms is associated with longitudinal changes in functional brain development across adolescence.
Design, Setting, and Participants
A 3-year longitudinal cohort study of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) among sixth- and seventh-grade students recruited from 3 public middle schools in rural North Carolina.
At wave 1, participants reported the frequency at which they checked Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.
Main Outcome or Measure
Neural responses to the Social Incentive Delay task when anticipating receiving social feedback, measured annually using fMRI for 3 years. Participants saw a cue that indicated whether the social feedback (adolescent faces with emotional expressions) would be a reward, punishment, or neutral; after a delay, a target appeared and students responded by pressing a button as quickly as possible; a display of social feedback depended on trial type and reaction time.
Of 178 participants recruited at age 12 years, 169 participants (mean [SD] age, 12.89 [0.58] years; range, 11.93-14.52 years; 91 [53.8%] female; 38 [22.5%] Black, 60 [35.5%] Latinx, 50 [29.6%] White, 15 [8.9%] multiracial) met the inclusion criteria. Participants with habitual social media checking behaviors showed lower neural sensitivity to social anticipation at age 12 years compared with those with nonhabitual checking behaviors in the left amygdala, posterior insula (PI), and ventral striatum (VS; β, −0.22; 95% CI, −0.33 to −0.11), right amygdala (β, −0.19; 95% CI, −0.30 to −0.08), right anterior insula (AI; β, −0.23; 95% CI, −0.37 to −0.09), and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC; β, −0.29; 95% CI, −0.44 to −0.14). Among those with habitual checking behaviors, there were longitudinal increases in the left amygdala/PI/VS (β, 0.11; 95% CI, 0.04 to 0.18), right amygdala (β, 0.09; 95% CI, 0.02 to 0.16), right AI (β, 0.15; 95% CI, 0.02 to 0.20), and left DLPFC (β, 0.19; 95% CI, 0.05 to 0.25) during social anticipation, whereas among those with nonhabitual checking behaviors, longitudinal decreases were seen in the left amygdala/PI/VS (β, −0.12; 95% CI, −0.19 to −0.06), right amygdala (β, −0.10; 95% CI, −0.17 to −0.03), right AI (β, −0.13; 95% CI, −0.22 to −0.04), and left DLPFC (β, −0.10, 95% CI, −0.22 to −0.03).
Conclusions and Relevance
The results of this cohort study suggest that social media checking behaviors in early adolescence may be associated with changes in the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments. Further research examining long-term associations between social media use, adolescent neural development, and psychological adjustment is needed to understand the effects of a ubiquitous influence on development for today’s adolescents.