How Consistent Social Media Check Ins Could Affect Adolescent Brains

Although we don't always realize it, scrolling through social media can take up a large chunk of our day if we let it. Consistently opening Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter to check levels of engagement with our content can be an emotional rollercoaster depending on the outcome. A 2020 study published in Child Development found that teens who received fewer likes on a simulated social media app were found to have more negative thoughts about themselves. These teens were also found to be more prone to depressive symptoms both on a daily basis and over the course of the year, particularly those who experienced bullying in school.

While studies such as these have demonstrated how social media can affect our mental health, what exactly is happening inside teens' brains when they are constantly checking social media? Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill set out to answer this question (via HealthDay). As per the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers tracked the frequency at which more than 160 middle school students checked Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat over the course of three years to determine how these behaviors affected adolescent brain development in the long run.

Social media and heightened sensitivity to social rewards

Self-reported study data revealed that while some adolescents checked social media not even once a day, others opened the apps upwards of 20 times each day, reports HealthDay. Using brain scanning technology, teens were shown images of facial expressions via social media to indicate whether social feedback would be a reward, punishment, or neutral response. A few moments later, participant reaction time was measured by having them push a button promptly in order to hit a target on the screen. In response, they would then receive a social reward or punishment. In doing so, the study team was able to observe which areas of the brain were activated during the experiment.

Over the course of three years, the researchers observed that 12-year-olds who checked social media more than 15 times daily showed changes in brain development, particularly in regions associated with social rewards (via HealthDay). For example, levels of neural sensitivity to social anticipation were found to differ in the amygdala between teens who habitually checked social media and teens who did not consistently open the apps, as per the study. According to Healthline, the amygdala plays a major role in emotional regulation. HealthDay reports that such findings indicate a link between habitual social media checking behaviors in teens and an increased sensitivity to peer feedback. However, the researchers note in the study that additional longitudinal research is required.