Study: Children who habitually check social media may experience major brain changes

Frequent social media use in children may lead to big changes in their brains, a new study found.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, used brain imaging (fMRI) to track 169 sixth- and seventh-grade students from public middle schools in North Carolina. Researchers wanted to know if habitual checking of three social media sites — Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat — changed the way children’s brains developed.

"Social media platforms provide adolescents with unprecedented opportunities for social interactions during a critical developmental period when the brain is especially sensitive to social feedback," researchers said.

After studying the students for three years, the results suggest that frequently checking social media in early adolescence "may tune the brain’s sensitivity to potential social rewards and punishments ... which could have implications for psychological adjustment."

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"Motivated by the anticipation of this social feedback, adolescents’ constant, habitual checking of social media may alter neurodevelopment, significantly changing the ways in which the adolescent brain responds to its environment," researchers said.

First, the students in the study were asked how many times per day they checked each platform. Their answers were then grouped into categories for researchers to create a score for each participant.

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(Photo Illustration by Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

From there, participants attended brain imaging sessions that measured their neural responses when they anticipated social rewards and avoided social punishments.  

According to the study, brains go through "significant structural and functional reorganization during adolescence." Teens are already inclined to seek "rewarding stimuli," especially from their peers. Frequent social media use could be making it worse, researchers said. 

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"Additionally, the motivational salience of social contexts may undermine adolescents’ ability to engage in cognitive control and, subsequently, to regulate their behaviors," the study said. "Consequently, repeated exposure to digital social rewards (eg, notifications or likes) may increase neural reactivity to reward-related cues, reducing adolescents’ ability to resist urges to check social media."

Researchers said more studies are needed to examine long-term associations between social media use and brain development in children.