Although most parents are semi-aware of the effects of social media on the mental health of their kids, a new study finds that regularly scrolling through feeds can seriously impact neural sensitivity in teens, changing their response to rewards and punishments.

Neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina conducted successive brain scans on 169 ethnically diverse children between the ages of 12 and 15, a period of especially rapid brain development, over the course of three years. According to the research, middle schoolers who habitually checked their social media feeds showed a distinct trajectory, with their sensitivity to social rewards from peers heightened over time. Teenagers with less engagement in social media followed the opposite path, with a declining interest in social rewards.

Published on Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics, the study suggests that changes to brain function may correlate with social media use in teens. Yet, the authors do acknowledge that because adolescence is a period of expanding social relationships, the brain differences could reflect a natural pivot toward peers — which could be driving more frequent social media use.

“We can’t make causal claims that social media is changing the brain,” Eva H. Telzer, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and one of the authors of the study, told The New York Times. “[But] teens who are habitually checking their social media are showing these pretty dramatic changes in the way their brains are responding, which could potentially have long-term consequences well into adulthood, sort of setting the stage for brain development over time.”

A group of teenagers busy with their phones in class.

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Those who took part in the study were sixth and seventh-graders from middle schools in rural North Carolina, and they were split into groups according to how often they reported checking Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat feeds. Habitual users reported checking their feeds 15 or more times a day, while moderate users checked between one and 14 times, and non-habitual users checked less than once a day.

The students received full brain scans at approximately one-year intervals as they played a computerized game that delivered rewards and punishment in the form of smiling or scowling peers. While completing the task, the habitual checkers showed increasing activation of three brain areas: reward-processing circuits, which also respond to experiences like winning money or risk-taking behavior; brain regions that determine salience, picking out what stands out in the environment; and the prefrontal cortex, which helps with regulation and control.

The research says individuals with habitual checking behaviors showed initial hypoactivation but increasing sensitivity to potential social cues over time, while those with nonhabitual checking behaviors showed initial hyperactivation and decreasing sensitivity over time. To put it more plainly, “teens who grow up checking social media more often are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” Dr. Telzer said.

Telzer and her fellow authors added that the findings do not capture the magnitude of the brain changes, only their trajectory. And it is unclear whether the changes are beneficial or harmful as social sensitivity could be adaptive — showing that the teenagers are learning to connect with others — or it could lead to social anxiety and depression if social needs are not met.

Jennifer Pfeifer, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and co-director of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence, told NYT that “all experience accumulates and is reflected in the brain.”

“I think you want to put it into this context,” she said. “So many other experiences that adolescents have will also be changing the brain. So we don’t want to get into some kind of moral panic about the idea that social media use is changing adolescents’ brains.”

As the study concludes, “further research examining long-term prospective associations between social media use, adolescent neural development, and psychological adjustment is needed to understand the effects of a ubiquitous influence on development for today’s adolescents.”

What parents should know is that more studies on teens and social media will most certainly be published in the future.

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