Social media is changing young people’s brains and making them ‘hypersensitive’ to feedback from their peers, a new study has warned.
Teenagers who habitually check social media may change their brains to become more sensitive to social rewards and punishments, the study found.
The researchers warn that this could have long-standing effects, as well as leading to adolescents going on to compulsive social media use.
The study findings suggest that checking social media repeatedly (more than 15 times a day) among young teens ages 12 to 13 may be associated with changes in how their brains develop over a three-year period.
Corresponding author Eva Telzer, a professor in University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s psychology and neuroscience department, says, “The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more often are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers.”
The study was published in JAMA Pediatrics and is one of the first long-term studies on adolescent technology use and neural development.
Researchers tracked 169 students recruited from public middle schools in rural North Carolina over three years.
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.
The participants also underwent yearly brain imaging sessions while completing a task which measured brain activity when anticipating social feedback from peers.
Maria Maza, a doctoral student in psychology wrote, “While this increased sensitivity to social feedback may promote future compulsive social media use, it could also reflect a possible adaptive behaviour that will allow teens to navigate an increasingly digital world.”
Social media platforms deliver a constant and unpredictable stream of social feedback in the form of likes, comments, notifications and messages.
The researchers say that these inputs can condition youngsters to check social media repeatedly.
Other studies have shown that 78% of 13- to 17-year-olds report checking their mobile devices at least hourly and 35% of teens report using at least one of the top five social media platforms almost constantly.
Co-author Mitch Prinstein, who also serves as the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association, says, “Most adolescents begin using technology and social media at one of the most important periods for brain development during our lifetime.
“Our research demonstrates that checking behaviours 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.”
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