February 6, 2023

The impact of social media use on children is a worrisome area of ​​research as parents and policymakers try to determine the results of a large-scale experiment that is already in full swing. Successive studies have added new pieces to the puzzle, fleshing out the implications of the near-continuous flow of virtual interactions that begin in childhood.

A new study by UNC neuroscientists tried something new, taking serial brain scans of middle school students between the ages of 12 and 15, a time when brain development is especially rapid.

The researchers found that children who habitually checked their social media feeds around the age of 12 showed a distinct trajectory of increased sensitivity to social rewards from their peers over time. Teenagers who were less socially engaged took the opposite path, showing less interest in social rewards.

Researchpublished Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, is one of the first attempts to capture changes in brain function associated with social media use over the years.

The authors acknowledge that this study has important limitations. Since adolescence is a time of expanding social relationships, brain differences may reflect a natural pivot toward peers, which may drive more frequent use of social media.

“We can’t say that social media is changing the brain,” said study co-author Eva H. Telzer, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill.

But, she adds, “Adolescents who habitually check social media show these rather dramatic changes in the way their brains respond, which could have long-lasting effects into adulthood, laying the groundwork for brain development over time.” Base”

A team of researchers studied 169 sixth- and seventh-graders from a middle school in rural North Carolina, dividing them into groups based on how often they reported checking their Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat feeds.

Around the age of 12, students already exhibit different behavior patterns. Habitual users reported checking their feed 15 or more times per day; moderate users checked 1 to 14 times; and non-habitual users checked less than once a day.

The subjects underwent three whole-brain scans at roughly one-year intervals as they played a computer game that offered rewards and punishments in the form of smiling or frowning companions.

While performing the task, people who regularly checkers showed increased activation in three brain regions: the reward-processing circuit, which also responds to experiences such as winning money or risk-taking behavior; stuff; and the prefrontal cortex, which helps with regulation and control.

The results showed that “teenagers who grew up checking social media frequently became highly sensitive to feedback from their peers,” Dr. Telzer said.

These findings do not capture the magnitude of the brain changes, only their trajectories. It’s unclear whether the changes are beneficial or harmful, the authors said. Social sensitivity may be adaptive, indicating that adolescents are learning to connect with others; if social needs are not met, it may lead to social anxiety and depression.

Researchers in the field of social media caution against drawing general conclusions from the findings.

“They show that the way you use it at one point in your life does affect the way your brain develops, but we don’t know how much, or whether it’s good or bad,” said Jeff Hancock, director of social science at Stanford. Media Lab, who was not involved in the study. Many other variables likely contributed to the changes, he said.

“What if these people join a new team — a hockey team or a volleyball team — and start getting more social interaction?” he said. He added that this could be because the researchers “are looking at the development of extraversion, and extroverts are more likely to check their social media.”

He described the paper as “a very complex piece of work” that contributes to recent research showing that sensitivity to social media varies from person to person.

“Some people have neurological conditions, which means they’re more likely to be drawn to frequent checkups,” he said. “We’re not all the same, and we should stop thinking social media is the same for everyone.”

Over the past decade, social media has remapped key experiences of adolescence, a period of rapid brain development.

almost all american teens Engage through social media, according to the Pew Research Center, 97% of people go online every day, and 46% say they are “almost always online.” Research shows that black and Latino teens spend more time on social media than white teens.

Researchers documented a range of effects on children’s mental health. some studies linked social media use to depression and anxiety, while others found little link.A sort of Learning in 2018 of lesbian, gay and bisexual teens find that social media provides them with validation and support, but also exposes them to hate speech.

Experts who reviewed the study said that because the researchers only measured the students’ social media use once, around the age of 12, they couldn’t know how it changed over time or rule out other factors that might affect brain development.

Without more information about other aspects of a student’s life, “it’s difficult to discern specific differences in brain development versus social media checks,” said Adriana Galvan, an expert on adolescent brain development at UCLA, who was not involved in the study.

Jennifer Pfeifer, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and co-director of the institute National Youth Science Councilsays, “All experience is accumulated and reflected in the brain.”

“I think you want to put it in that context,” she said. “Many other experiences of teens change the brain. So we don’t want to get into some sort of moral panic with the idea that social media is changing the brains of teens.”

Dr. Terzer, one of the study’s authors, described increased sensitivity to social feedback as “neither good nor bad”.

“It helps them connect with others and reap the rewards of something common in their social world, which is engaging in online social interactions,” she said.

“This is the new normal,” she added. “It’s important to understand how this new digital world affects teens. It could be related to changes in the brain, but that could be a good thing or a bad thing. We don’t necessarily know the long-term effects.”

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