Jan. 3 (UPI) — Young teens who check Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat frequently throughout the day could be changing the way their brains develop, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found middle schoolers who checked the platforms more often had higher rates of sensitivity to rewards and punishment, according to the study published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics.
“For youth who habitually check their social media, the brain is changing in a way that is becoming more and more sensitive to social feedback over time,” said lead study author Dr. Eva Telzer, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “And this is setting the stage for how the brain continues to develop into adulthood.”
Researchers studied 169 sixth and seventh-grade students over three years and found those who habitually checked social media in early adolescence were more likely to experience changes in the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.
The students were asked to document how many times they checked each platform, with some reporting more than 20 times a day. Participants also attended a brain imaging session to measure their neural responses to receiving social rewards and avoiding social punishments.
Researchers found 12-year-olds who checked their social media more frequently showed distinct neural trajectories when anticipating social feedback compared to those who checked the platforms less often.
The safety of using and posting on social media at a young age has become a frequent topic for studies associating its use with an increased risk for depression and other mental health issues.
Last month, a state lawmaker in Florida introduced a bill that would require schools to teach a course on social media safety.
“It’s about protecting kids. It’s about helping them realize things they do today may live long after they posted it,” said Florida state Republican Sen. Danny Burgess.
Early adolescence is a critical time for brain development and has also become a period of high social media use, according to the study.
“Heightened sensitivity could lead to later compulsive social media behaviors,” Telzer said, “or it could reflect an adaptive neural change that helps teens navigate their social worlds.”