Is social media changing teenage brains?

Research shows that exposure to a near-constant stream of virtual interactions makes teenagers (even) more sensitive to the opinions of others.

Neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina conducted brain scans on high school students between the ages of 12 and 15, a period of prime brain development. Researchers have found that young people who regularly use their social networks (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) develop differently.

Side effects of networks on the brain

Indeed, the sensitivity of young people who consult regularly to social pleasures will increase over time compared to others who go the opposite way. The New York Times. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics in early January, is one of the first attempts to photograph changes in brain function associated with social media use over several years. As an experiment, researchers scanned the brains of teenagers who played a video game that rewarded players with a smile or a frown once a year for three years.

These scans show that the parts of the brain affected correspond to the parts that regulate motivation, affect and cognitive control. The findings show that significant exposure to social media (with a frequency of more than 15 connections per day) significantly modulates how an adolescent responds to the environment by altering neurodevelopmental trajectories. Thus, adolescents who grow up with multiple relationships are more receptive to peer feedback and therefore more responsive to reward mechanisms (awards) and penalties (punishment) social.

Putting results into perspective

The researchers, however, are cautious about drawing conclusions: “We cannot reasonably claim that social media is changing the brain,” points out Eva H. Telzer, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina. The authors of the study also note that the obtained results do not reflect the magnitude of the observed brain changes and do not allow them to decide whether these changes are beneficial or harmful. This adolescent tendency can lead to more acute learning of relating to others, such as social anxiety and depressive states when social needs are not met.

Other network researchers cautioned against drawing firm conclusions based on the University of North Carolina team’s findings, explaining that many other variables could have contributed to these changes in these teenagers. “What if these people join a new team — hockey or softball — and then start interacting more socially? asks Jeff Hancock, director of the Stanford Social Media Lab. For him, the researchers simply “could have noted the development of extraversion in subjects who were more likely to turn to social networks.” It continues inside The New York Times : “We are not all the same and we should stop thinking that social networks are the same for everyone. »

When complexity catches up with us…

According to the Pew Research Center, 97% of American teenagers go online every day, and 46% of them report being online “almost all the time,” a percentage that will increase among young African Americans and Latinos when it comes to social networking. While some studies have linked the use of social networks to depression or anxiety, others have refuted the cause-and-effect relationship. Others have more mixed results: a study published in 2018 on bisexual and homosexual teenagers shows that networks provide comfort and support to them by exposing them to hateful discourse.

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