Teens’ habit of frequently checking social media has been linked to brain development changes, a new study warned. The research, published on Tuesday (January 2) in JAMA Pediatrics, found that adolescents’ brains may become more sensitive when anticipating social rewards and punishments over time with frequent and increased social media usage.

“The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more often are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” study co-author Eva Telzer from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said in a statement. In the study, scientists tracked about 170 students from public middle schools in rural North Carolina over three years. At the beginning of the study, researchers found that middle schoolers checked popular social media platforms less than once to more than 20 times a day.

The participants then underwent yearly brain imaging sessions as they completed a social incentive delay task that measures brain activity when anticipating social feedback from peers. “While this increased sensitivity to social feedback may promote future compulsive social media use, it could also reflect a possible adaptive behavior that will allow teens to navigate an increasingly digital world,” study co-author Maria Maza said.

Scientists found that likes, comments, notifications and messages on social media deliver a constant and unpredictable stream of social feedback. “These social inputs are frequent, inconsistent and often rewarding, making them especially powerful reinforcers that can condition users to check social media repeatedly,” Kara Fox, another author of the study explained.

Participants who engaged in habitual checking behaviors showed distinct brain developmental changes. Researchers found particular changes in the brain regions of these participants made up of “motivational, and cognitive control networks” in response to anticipating social rewards and punishments compared with those who engaged in nonhabitual checking behaviors.

The new research suggests that repeatedly using such platforms by young teens ages 12 to 13 may be linked to changes in how their brains develop over a three-year period. Researchers say the brains of adolescents who checked social media frequently – about 15 times per day – became especially more sensitive to social feedback. “Most adolescents begin using technology and social media at one of the most important periods for brain development during our lifetime,” another study author Dr. Mitch Prinstein, from the American Psychological Association, said.

He added, “Our research demonstrates that checking behaviors on social media could have long-standing and important consequences for adolescents’ neural development, which is critical for parents and policy-makers to consider when understanding the benefits and potential harms associated with teen technology use.”

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