We finally have scientific, empirical proof of what many people have believed for years – that social media adversely affects children and young teens and can even alter their brains. Neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina suggested in a recently published study that habitually checking social media as a young teenager leads to hypersensitivity to peer feedback and may potentially lead to permanent changes in the brain’s reward and motivation centers.
In the study, the neuroscientists worked with a group of 169 teens between the ages of 12 and 15, observed how their brains developed, and compared it to their self-reported use of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.
The neuroscientists discovered that children and teens with chronic usage or checking any of the platforms above more than 15 times a day became increasingly sensitive to feedback, not just from their peers on social media but in real life.
The brain scans of these subjects showed increased activity in areas associated with reward processing, concentration, regulation, and control. The researchers observed that these appeared to contribute to positive feedback loops, increasing their sensitivity to peer approval.
In comparison, those teens who said they checked their social media apps only once at most every day showed a decrease in activity in these areas. This suggested that they were less concerned with feedback from peers or may have more self-control over compulsive behaviors.
“Teens who are habitually checking their social media are showing these pretty dramatic changes in the way their brains are responding, which could potentially have long-term consequences well into adulthood, sort of setting the stage for brain development over time,” study co-author Eva Telzer told the New York Times.
We also spoke to a couple of doctors, Dr. Sudipto Chatterjee, a neurosurgeon at one of the largest hospitals in Kolkata, and Dr. Mukesh Dwivedi, another neuro specialist based out of Gurgaon who shared some fantastic insights into how social media hurts the minds and brains of children and young adults.
“We all have heard cases where social media has led young users, especially young girls, to depression and serious body dysmorphia. There have been many cases where people well into their teens have died by suicide because of social media and how it made them see themselves. While such drastic cases may be few and far between, some studies show that an abnormal exposure to social media, especially social media consumption, can slow down the analytical portion of the brain,” says Dr. Chatterjee.
“How social media platforms have designed their algorithms seems to be hurting how we process information and handle memories. It has also led to an alarming shortening of attention spans, not just in children and teens but in young adults as well,” says Dr. Dwivedi.
So, does social media consumption slow users, especially young teens and children? “The evidence seems to just so,” says Dr. Dwivedi. “Studies show that while there hasn’t been a noticeable drop in IQ, children and young teens seem to be taking longer to grasp complex concepts in maths, science, and logical reasoning. It’s as if social media has replaced the television as the new idiot box,” he adds.
However, it may not be the usage of social media but how it is consumed. Says Dr. Chatterjee, “While consuming social media beyond a certain limit is surely detrimental, what is problematic is how we use social media. More often than not, people would check their Instagram or Facebook within half an hour of walking up, sometimes as soon as they get out of bed. We have also seen people go to bed early but just lay there with their eyes glued to their phones, scrolling through their feeds, waiting to fall asleep. The blue light from the display alters your sleep cycle and messes it up. Prolonged exposure to blue light before you go to sleep will eventually have some physiological changes as well,” he added.