Habitually checking social media as a young teenager is linked to hypersensitivity to peer feedback and may potentially lead to permanent changes in the brain’s reward and motivation centers, neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina suggested in a study published on Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics.
The study looked at a group of 169 teens as their brains developed between the ages of 12 to 15 and their self-reported use of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.
When those with usage the researchers classed as “habitual” – meaning they checked their accounts 15 or more times a day – played a game that modeled feedback in the form of peer approval, they became increasingly sensitive to that feedback. Brain scans showed increased activity in areas associated with reward processing, concentration, regulation and control, and the researchers observed that these appeared to contribute to positive feedback loops, further increasing their sensitivity to peer approval.
Those teens who reported checking their social media once at most per day showed a corresponding decrease in activity in these areas, suggesting they were less concerned with feedback from peers or may have more self-control over compulsive behaviors.
While acknowledging that it was impossible to tell from the limited data collected whether it was the social media usage making the teens more concerned with feedback from their peers, or a preexisting preoccupation with being judged by peers that made them more likely to check their accounts, the researchers made it clear they suspected the former.
“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,” study co-author Eva Telzer told the New York Times.
She argued the hypersensitivity shown in the habitual social media users was neither good nor bad, but merely an adaptation to living in an increasingly interconnected world.