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 TikTok 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.
Nearly half of children admit they check social media ‘almost constantly’
The researchers studied 178 children (who were age 12 at the beginning of the study) from three public middle schools in North Carolina. Each participant reported how often they checked the popular social media platforms Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. They then 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.
Results show that 78 percent of 13 to 17-year-olds report checking their devices at least hourly each day and 46 percent say they check them “almost constantly.”
“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.