CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Here’s one more reason to limit the amount of time your child is spending in front of a screen. Social media could be reprogramming children’s brains and making them hooked on “likes,” a new study out of the University of North Carolina reveals.
Apps such as Instagram or Snapchat could be making teenagers almost constantly checking their phones to see if they have positive or negative reactions to their online posts, experts say. The more young people check social media, the more sensitive they become to “social feedback” in the form of likes and comments, psychologists said.
Social feedback includes social rewards and punishments such as thumbs up and down, tagging, reporting content or star ratings. This increasing anticipation and sensitivity to receiving these kind of responses makes it hard for adolescents to fight the urge to check their accounts, according to researchers.
“Our findings suggest that checking behaviors on social media in early adolescence may tune the brain’s sensitivity to potential social rewards and punishments,” their paper, published in JAMA Pediatrics explains. “Individuals with habitual checking behaviors showed initial hypoactivation but increasing sensitivity to potential social cues over time, those with non-habitual checking behaviurs showed initial hyperactivation and decreasing sensitivity over time.”
During adolescence the brain experiences “significant structural and functional reorganization changes,” making it a crucial period of development. “Neural regions involved in motivational relevance and affective become hyperactive, orienting teens to rewarding stimuli in their environment, particularly from peers,” the authors say.
Children scanning social media 15 times daily at highest risk
The researchers studied 169 students from three public middle schools in North Carolina over three years. Each participant reported how often they checked the popular social media platforms Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. Some admitted doing so more than 20 times in a day. They also took part in a Social Incentive Delay task where their brain responses were measured when they were anticipating receiving social rewards and avoiding social punishments.
Previous research shows that 78 percent of 13 to 17-year-olds report checking their devices at least hourly each day and 35 percent look at the top five networks “almost constantly.” In this study, the authors point out that students who look at social media at least 15 times daily were the most sensitive to social feedback.
“The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more often are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” says Eva Telzer, a professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s psychology and neuroscience department and a corresponding author, in a statement. ”
“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,” the study concludes. This longitudinal cohort study suggests that social media behaviours in early adolescence may be associated with changes in adolescents’ neural development, specifically neural sensitivity to potential social feedback.
“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,” they add.
The study was supported by a National Institutes of Health grant and the Winston Family Foundation.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story reported that 47% of children admit they check social media “almost constantly.” That number has been corrected to 35%. This specific finding was also attributed to the latest study, however the release for this research notes that the figures were taken from previous research.
South West News Service Alice Clifford contributed to the initial report on this study.