Teens who compulsively checked social media networks showed different development patterns in parts of the brain that involve reward and punishment than did those who didn’t check their platforms as often, new research suggests.
Results were published online in JAMA Pediatrics.
Researchers, led by Maria T. Maza, of the department of psychology and neuroscience at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, included 169 6th- and 7th-grade students recruited from three public middle schools in rural North Carolina in a 3-year longitudinal cohort.
Participants reported how frequently they checked Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Answers were grouped into eight score groups depending on their per-day check times: less than 1; 1; 2-3; 4-5; 6-10; 11-15; 16-20; or more than 20 times. Those groups were then broken into three categories: low (nonhabitual); moderate; and high (habitual).
Imaging shows reactions
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how different areas of the brain react when participants looked at a series of indicators, such as happy and angry faces, which mimic social media rewards, punishments, or neutral feedback.
The research team focused on adolescents, for whom social media participation and neural sensitivity to social feedback from peers are high.
They found that participants who frequently checked social media showed distinct brain patterns when anticipating social feedback compared with those who had moderate or low use, “suggesting that habitual social media checking early in adolescence is associated with divergent brain development over time.”
The affected regions of the brain included the networks that respond to motivation and cognitive control.
However, the study was not able to determine whether the differences are a good or bad thing.
“While for some individuals with habitual checking behaviors, an initial hyposensitivity to potential social rewards and punishments followed by hypersensitivity may contribute to checking behaviors on social media becoming compulsive and problematic, for others, this change in sensitivity may reflect an adaptive behavior that allows them to better navigate their increasingly digital environment,” the authors wrote.
David Rettew, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who was not part of this research, said in an interview that it’s not clear from this study which came first – different brain development in the teens prior to this study that caused compulsive checking, or checking behaviors that caused different brain development. The authors acknowledge this is a limitation of the study.
“Hopefully, someday researchers will look at some of these brain activation patterns before kids have been exposed to social media to help us sort some of these questions out,” Dr. Rettew said.
“It wasn’t as though the groups looked the same at baseline and then diverged as they used more and more social media,” Dr. Rettew said. “It looked like there were some baseline differences that could be traced back maybe years before the study even started.”
People hear “divergent brain development” associated with social media and naturally get alarmed, he acknowledged.
“I get that, but the study isn’t really equipped to tell us what should be happening in the brain and what changes may have implications for other parts of an adolescent’s life,” Dr. Rettew said, “In the end, what we have is an association between heavy social media use and certain brain activation patterns which is cool to see and measure.”
He agrees with the authors, however, that overuse of social media is concerning and studying its effects is important.