New neuroimaging research provides evidence that the frequency of checking social media during adolescent might influence how the brains of teenagers develop. The findings, published in JAMA Pediatrics, indicate the the use of social media is related to developmental changes in neural sensitivity to anticipation of social rewards and punishments.
“We were interested to see how young adolescents’ social media use behaviors may relate to the trajectory of their brain development over time,” said study author Kara A. Fox, a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“The constant availability of social media allows adolescents to access social rewards at any time they desire, and these rewards come in quantifiable, unprecedented forms such as likes and comments. We hypothesized that checking social media more often would be associated with increases in the brain’s sensitivity to social feedback.”
For their study, the researchers recruited a sample of 169 sixth- and seventh-grade students from three middle schools in North Carolina. The participants were first asked how many times per day they checked Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. (Answers ranged from less than once to more than 20 times a day.) The participants then attended an annual brain imaging session for three years during which they completed the Social Incentive Delay task.
In the task, participants were shown a cue indicating whether they might receive social feedback in the form of a reward, punishment, or neutral response. After a short delay, a target appeared and participants had to respond as quickly as possible. The social feedback they received depended on the type of trial and their reaction time.
If they responded quickly in the social reward condition, they received a happy face as feedback, and if they responded slowly, they received a blurred face. In the social punishment condition, a fast response resulted in a blurred face, while a slow response earned an angry face. In the control condition, a blurred face was the feedback for both fast and slow responses.
The researchers observed different patterns of brain development in regions that deal with emotion, motivation, and self-control based on social media checking behavior.
Adolescents who frequently checked Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat exhibited reduced brain activity at baseline in the amygdala, posterior insula, ventral striatum, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when they expected to get social rewards or punishments. But those with habitual checking behaviors exhibited increases in activation in these regions over time, while those with nonhabitual checking behaviors exhibited decreases in activation over time.
“Our study suggests that checking social media more habitually is associated with different trajectories of brain development in young adolescents, such that those who check social media more often show increasing neural sensitivity to social feedback over time, and those who check at low or moderate levels show decreasing sensitivity, as may be normative across adolescence,” Fox told PsyPost.
“Notably, the groups differed at the start of the study — adolescents who checked habitually started out less sensitive to social feedback than those who checked at low or moderate levels. Therefore, it will be important to study social media use behaviors and brain development from earlier ages, to perhaps capture when and why these differences are originating.”
“It will also be important to study if and how social media use behaviors change over time and associations with brain development, as our study only examined checking frequency at a single timepoint,” Fox added. “Finally, it is too early to say whether these findings are good or bad – it may be that the increasing sensitivity is adaptive and that the brain is adapting to better navigate digital environments, which are irrevocably part of our world.”
The use of social media can have important implications for the psychological adjustment of adolescents because it can shape their social experiences, affect their self-esteem, and influence their identity formation. Adolescents may also experience cyberbullying, social comparison, and fear of missing out, which can negatively impact their mental health.
“We encourage anybody interested in how technology use may affect development and wellbeing to visit our website https://www.teensandtech.org/ for information and resources,” Fox said.
The study, “Association of Habitual Checking Behaviors on Social Media With Longitudinal Functional Brain Development“, was authored by Maria T. Maza, Kara A. Fox, Seh-Joo Kwon, Jessica E. Flannery, Kristen A. Lindquist, Mitchell J. Prinstein, and Eva H. Telzer.