The influence of social media usage on children is a contentious field of study, as parents and governments attempt to determine the outcomes of a massive experiment that is already underway. The ramifications of an almost continual stream of virtual encounters starting in infancy have been fleshed out by successive investigations.
A new research conducted by neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina conducts repeated brain scans of middle school students between the ages of 12 and 15, a time of fast brain growth.
The researchers discovered that youngsters who regularly viewed their social media feeds at the age of 12 had a different trajectory, with their sensitivity to social incentives from peers intensifying with time. Teenagers with a lower level of social media participation exhibited a decreased interest in social incentives.
The research, which was published on Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, is among the first efforts to quantify changes in brain function over time that are connected with social media usage.
The research had significant limitations, as acknowledged by the authors. Due to the fact that adolescence is a time of developing social ties, the brain variations may indicate a natural tilt toward peers, which may be responsible for increased social media usage.
Eva H. Telzer, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the study’s authors, said, “We cannot make causal statements that social media is altering the brain.”
Researchers divided an ethnically varied sample of 169 sixth- and seventh-grade kids from a rural North Carolina middle school according to how often they reported checking their Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts.
Around the age of 12, the pupils had different behavioural characteristics. Habitual users reported checking their feeds at least 15 times per day, moderate users between one and 14 times, and occasional users fewer than once per day.
The patients had three complete brain scans, separated by around one year, while playing a computer game that offered rewards and punishments in the shape of smiling or frowning peers.
Frequent checkers demonstrated increasing activation of three brain regions while performing the task: reward-processing circuits, which also respond to experiences such as winning money or engaging in risky behaviour; brain regions that determine salience, identifying what stands out in the environment; and the prefrontal cortex, which aids in regulation and control.
Dr. Telzer said that the data demonstrated that “kids who check social media more often become hypersensitive to input from their peers.”
The research does not reveal the size of the brain alterations, just their course. According to the authors, it is unclear whether the modifications are useful or detrimental. Social sensitivity may be adaptive, indicating that adolescents are learning to interact with others, or it may result in social anxiety and despair if social requirements are not addressed.
Researchers in the area of social media cautioned against taking broad inferences from the results.
Jeff Hancock, the founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, who was not involved in the research, said, “They are demonstrating that the way you use it at one time in your life does alter the way your brain grows, but we don’t know by how much or whether it’s good or harmful.” According to him, other additional factors might have contributed to these alterations.
“What if these individuals joined a new team — a hockey team or a volleyball team, for example — and began to get much more social interaction?” he asked. It is possible, he noted, that the researchers are “noticing the rise of extroversion, and extroverts are more prone to check social media.”
Social media have remapped the key experiences of adolescence, a time of fast brain development, during the last decade.
According to the Pew Research Center, almost all American adolescents participate in social media, with 97 percent going online daily and 46 percent indicating that they are online “almost constantly.” According to study, black and Latino teens spend more time on social media than their white counterparts.
Researchers have observed a variety of affects on the mental health of youngsters. Some studies have identified a correlation between social media usage and sadness and anxiety, whereas others have not. A 2018 research of lesbian, homosexual, and bisexual adolescents found that social media offered them support and recognition, but also exposed them to hate speech.
Because the researchers examined kids’ social media usage just once, around the age of 12, it is hard to determine how it evolved over time or to rule out the possibility that other variables may also alter brain development, according to experts who reviewed the report.
Jennifer Pfeifer, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and co-director of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence, said, “Every event is represented in the brain and accumulates over time.”
She said, “I believe you want to place it in this perspective.” “So many other events teenagers may encounter will likewise alter the brain. Therefore, we do not want to create a moral panic around the concept that social media usage alters the brains of teenagers.
One of the study’s authors, Dr. Telzer, called the increasing sensitivity to social input as “neither positive nor negative.”