Social media use is linked to brain changes in teenagers, research shows


The impact of social media use on children is a difficult area of ​​research as parents and policymakers try to decipher the results of a large and already evolving experiment. One study after another has added pieces to the puzzle that reveal the consequences of an almost constant stream of virtual interactions beginning in childhood.

A new study by neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina attempts something new by sequentially scanning the brains of middle school students between the ages of 12 and 15 during a period of particularly rapid brain development.

The researchers found that children who regularly checked their social media feeds around age 12 showed a clear trajectory over time, with increased sensitivity to peer social rewards. Teens who engaged less in social media followed the opposite path, showing less interest in social rewards.

The study, published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, is one of the first attempts in years to identify changes in brain activity associated with social media use.

The study has significant limitations, acknowledge the authors. Because adolescence is a time of expanding social relationships, differences in the brain may reflect a natural bias toward peers, which may lead to more frequent use of social media.

“There’s no reason to say that social media changes the brain,” says Eva H. Telzer, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author. of research.

But, he added, “it shows very complex changes in the brain response of teenagers who typically check their social networks, which can have long-term consequences in adulthood, building the foundation for brain development over time.”

A team of researchers studied an ethnically diverse group of 169 sixth- and seventh-grade middle school students in rural North Carolina and divided them into groups based on how often they reported checking Facebook, Instagram, and Facebook feeds. Snapchat.

At the age of 12, students began to show unusual behavior patterns. Regular users reported checking their feed 15 or more times a day; average users checked between one and 14 times; non-typical users check less than once a day.

Subjects received three whole-brain scans one year apart and were offered rewards and punishments in the form of smiles or grimacing peers while playing a computer game.

During the task, frequent controllers showed activation of three brain regions: reward processing circuits, which are also responsible for experiences such as making money or taking risks; regions of the brain that determine salience by choosing what stands out in the environment; and the prefrontal cortex, which helps with regulation and control.

The results show that “teenagers who grow up checking social media are often more sensitive to the opinions of their peers,” Dr. Telzer said.

The results show only the trajectory of the brain changes, not the magnitude. According to the authors, it is unclear whether these changes are beneficial or harmful. Social sensitivity may be adaptive, indicating that adolescents learn to connect with others; or when social needs are not met, it can lead to social anxiety and depression.

Social media researchers cautioned against jumping to conclusions based on the findings.

“They show that how you use it at any point in your life affects how your brain develops, but we don’t know how good or bad that is,” said Jeff Hancock, co-founder of Stanford Social. Media Lab, which was not involved in the study. Many other variables may contribute to these changes, he said.

“If these people join a new team—a hockey team or a volleyball team—do they begin to interact more socially?” he said. He added that researchers “are interested in the development of extroversion and that extroverts check their social networks more often.”

He described the paper as “a very complex piece of work” that adds to recent research showing that social media sensitivities vary from person to person.

“There are people with neurological conditions that mean they are more likely to be tested,” he said. “We’re not all the same, and we should stop thinking that social media is for everyone.”

Over the past decade, social media has reconfigured the central experience of adolescence, a period of rapid brain development.

Almost all American teenagers interact via social media, with 97% checking in daily and 46% saying they are “almost always online,” according to the Pew Research Center. Black and Latino youth spend more hours on social media than their white counterparts, according to research.

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 affirmed and supported them, while exposing them to hate speech.

Experts who reviewed the study said that because the researchers measured students’ social media use once, around age 12, it is impossible to know how it has changed. to rule out other factors that may affect the development of the brain over time.

Without more information about other aspects of students’ lives, “it’s hard to tell how different brain development is from checking social media,” says brain development specialist Adriana Galvan. teenagers at the University of California, Los Angeles, who did not participate in the study.

Jennifer Pfeiffer, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and co-director of the National Research Council on Adolescence, says, “All experiences are accumulated and reflected in the brain.

“I think you want to put it in that context,” he said. “So many other experiences teenagers have are changing the brain, so we don’t want to get into a moral panic that social media use is changing the teenage brain.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Telzer, described 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, social interactions online,” he said.

“This is the new normal,” he added. “It’s important to understand how this new digital world affects teenagers. It can be related to changes in the brain, but it can be good or bad. We don’t necessarily know the long-term consequences yet.


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