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Constantly Checking Social Media Might Be Changing Preteens’ Brains, Study Finds

Does it seem like your preteen is constantly checking their social media accounts? This common habit might be linked to changes in their brain’s sensitivity to social dynamics, according to new research.

A longitudinal study published in JAMA Pediatrics explored whether habitually checking social media had any long-term affects on brain development in preteens. All 169 participants were recruited between the ages of 12 and 13 and followed closely over the course of three years. During that time, participants were asked to self-report how often they used Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. They also underwent annual MRI assessments of how their brains responded to rewards and punishments in social settings.

Researchers’ findings were illuminating: Preteens who opened Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat at least 15 times per day showed distinct changes in their brain development over time.

“These teens might become more attuned to social rewards or punishments, including those in digital forms such as ‘likes,’ notifications, or comments,” Eva H. Telzer, PhD, the study’s lead author, told MedPage Today. “Meanwhile, teens who do not check social media as often become less sensitive or attuned to social feedback over time.”

Although this heightened sensitivity could open the door for “future compulsive social media checking,” Telzer said it could also be regarded as “adaptive” since it helps today’s youth navigate social settings in our increasingly online world. (Let’s face it: In a world where people can make a living as social media influencers, likes and comments are basically a form of currency.)

Telzer said an individual’s behaviors are usually similar across all social media sites, so the results of this study could be applicable to other platforms too. Still, further research is needed to fully understand “the effects of [social media’s] ubiquitous influence on development for today’s adolescents.”

“Ubiquitous” is certainly the right word: Most American teens today have access to smartphones and use social media. According to a Pew Research report from 2022, 19 percent of U.S. teens report using YouTube “almost constantly.” A staggering 86 percent of teen TikTok and Snapchat users say they check these platforms daily, sometimes more than once a day.

Despite these figures, only about a third of adolescents (36 percent) believe they use social media “too much.”

This is hardly the first peer-reviewed study to explore the effects of social media use on young people’s brain development. One study from 2019 found that teens who use social media for more than three hours per day are at a higher risk of mental health issues. But, hey, another study published last year said video games might not be as bad for kids’ brains as we originally thought.

Social media is an unavoidable part of modern living, so parents — don’t let these reports freak you out about your child’s social media usage. These platforms can be amazing tools for forging friendships and widening one’s worldview when used in moderation.

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