UNC Study: ‘Habitual’ Social Media Use Changes Kids’ Brain Development

UNC Study: ‘Habitual’ Social Media Use Changes Kids’ Brain Development

A study by UNC researchers found that habitual checking of social media can impact brain development in adolescents.

The study focused on a group of middle school students from North Carolina public schools. The researchers found that the more time they spent on social media, the more sensitive their brains became to social feedback from their peers.

Kara Fox is a PhD student in psychology at UNC. She is one of the co-authors of the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics in early January. She said the study was longitudinal, which means researchers studied children over time, specifically over three years.

“We tracked about 200 kids who completed a survey about how much they viewed social media, and then they also had a brain scan done every year,” Fox said.

The study tracked student traffic on three different platforms: Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Fox said the annual MRI scan allows researchers to look at different parts of children’s brains.

“They performed tasks in the scanner to elicit activation in certain areas of social processing,” Fox said.

Fox said children who visited these social media sites more than 15 times a day, which it called “usual checkers,” were initially less responsive to social comments and became more responsive over time. Meanwhile, she said kids who were moderate to low on social media started out being more responsive and went down over time.

“So what the study shows us is that different media behaviors are associated with different trajectories of brain development,” Fox said. “It’s kind of a baseline for future study, because we don’t really know what it means yet.” All we can say is that media behaviors are associated with changes in brain development, at least brain development.

Teens are wired to value social connections and information above all else, Fox said.

“A lot of really important developmental tasks that happen in adolescents happen with the help of peers — identity, exploration, and development there,” Fox said. “It’s always been that way, and for kids growing up now, a lot is happening online.”

Fox said kids interacting more online aren’t necessarily of concern. She noted that it’s too early to conclude whether different trajectories of brain development will have a positive or negative impact.

Ultimately, the risk of using social media depends on each person, Fox said.

“It’s something we’re trying to explore and identify in order to determine what are certain resilience factors, what are certain risk factors and certain types of interpretations and responses of media activity to social norms” , Fox said.

Fox said the study was a great first step in answering the researchers’ questions, but more answers are still needed.

“This somewhat confirms what we already expected, which is that social media is linked to different trajectories of brain development in children,” Fox said. “I think it’s important that people are aware of this, but we also need to get more information about what this means so that we can make specific recommendations.”

In the meantime, Fox encourages people to think about their own habitual checking habits and urges parents to talk to their children about their media use.

“Kids love to talk about their media use,” Fox said. “They love to talk to you about what they’re doing there, and it’s nice to have that open channel of communication so that one, the parents can monitor what their kids are doing and two, talk with them – are satisfied with your use? Is it in line with your values? Do you use it for any purpose?”

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