Thursday, June 8, 2023

Social media checking behaviors in early adolescence and changes in the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments

Maza MT, Fox KA, Kwon SJ, Flannery JE, Lindquist KA, Prinstein MJ, Telzer EH. Association of Habitual Checking Behaviors on Social Media With Longitudinal Functional Brain Development. JAMA Pediatr. 2023 Feb 1;177(2):160-167. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4924. Erratum in: JAMA Pediatr. 2023 Feb 13;: PMID: 36595277; PMCID: PMC9857400.

Key Points

Question Is adolescents’ frequency of checking behaviors on 3 social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat) associated with longitudinal changes in functional brain development across adolescence.

Findings In this cohort study of 169 sixth- and seventh-grade students, participants who engaged in habitual checking behaviors showed a distinct neurodevelopmental trajectory within regions of the brain comprising the affective salience, motivational, and cognitive control networks in response to anticipating social rewards and punishments compared with those who engaged in nonhabitual checking behaviors.

Meaning These results suggest that habitual checking of social media in early adolescence may be longitudinally associated with changes in neural sensitivity to anticipation of social rewards and punishments, which could have implications for psychological adjustment.


Importance Social media platforms provide adolescents with unprecedented opportunities for social interactions during a critical developmental period when the brain is especially sensitive to social feedback.

Objective To explore how adolescents’ frequency of checking behaviors on social media platforms is associated with longitudinal changes in functional brain development across adolescence.

Design, Setting, and Participants A 3-year longitudinal cohort study of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) among sixth- and seventh-grade students recruited from 3 public middle schools in rural North Carolina.

Exposures At wave 1, participants reported the frequency at which they checked Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Main Outcome or Measure Neural responses to the Social Incentive Delay task when anticipating receiving social feedback, measured annually using fMRI for 3 years. Participants saw a cue that indicated whether the social feedback (adolescent faces with emotional expressions) would be a reward, punishment, or neutral; after a delay, a target appeared and students responded by pressing a button as quickly as possible; a display of social feedback depended on trial type and reaction time.

Results Of 178 participants recruited at age 12 years, 169 participants (mean [SD] age, 12.89 [0.58] years; range, 11.93-14.52 years; 91 [53.8%] female; 38 [22.5%] Black, 60 [35.5%] Latinx, 50 [29.6%] White, 15 [8.9%] multiracial) met the inclusion criteria. Participants with habitual social media checking behaviors showed lower neural sensitivity to social anticipation at age 12 years compared with those with nonhabitual checking behaviors in the left amygdala, posterior insula (PI), and ventral striatum (VS; β, −0.22; 95% CI, −0.33 to −0.11), right amygdala (β, −0.19; 95% CI, −0.30 to −0.08), right anterior insula (AI; β, −0.23; 95% CI, −0.37 to −0.09), and left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC; β, −0.29; 95% CI, −0.44 to −0.14). Among those with habitual checking behaviors, there were longitudinal increases in the left amygdala/PI/VS (β, 0.11; 95% CI, 0.04 to 0.18), right amygdala (β, 0.09; 95% CI, 0.02 to 0.16), right AI (β, 0.15; 95% CI, 0.02 to 0.20), and left DLPFC (β, 0.19; 95% CI, 0.05 to 0.25) during social anticipation, whereas among those with nonhabitual checking behaviors, longitudinal decreases were seen in the left amygdala/PI/VS (β, −0.12; 95% CI, −0.19 to −0.06), right amygdala (β, −0.10; 95% CI, −0.17 to −0.03), right AI (β, −0.13; 95% CI, −0.22 to −0.04), and left DLPFC (β, −0.10, 95% CI, −0.22 to −0.03).

Conclusions and Relevance The results of this cohort study suggest that social media checking behaviors in early adolescence may be associated with changes in the brain’s sensitivity to social rewards and punishments. Further research examining long-term associations between social media use, adolescent neural development, and psychological adjustment is needed to understand the effects of a ubiquitous influence on development for today’s adolescents.


Using MRI brain scans, researchers at the University of North Carolina found that teens who frequently checked social media were more likely to see increased activation in the regions of the brain that regulate reward centers and those that may play a role in regulating decision-making around social situations...

The results showed that students who used social media more frequently had increased activation in parts of their brain, possibly making them more prone to peer feedback and hypersensitivity and possibly leading to changes in impulse control and regulation, according to ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton.

Although MRIs can measure changes in the brain, it's often not clear if those changes are temporary or permanent, nor is it clear whether those changes impact a person's overall well-being.

But Ashton, who was not a researcher on the study, said the study raises questions about whether changes in the brain can impact both short and long-term behavior...

The study does have limitations, including relying on self-reported accounts of social media use, which can be unreliable. It also did not include TikTok, one of the most popular social media apps among teens.

There are though known negative impacts of social media and screen time on young people's health.

"It's the same thing that we see with increased screen use in teens," Ashton said. "Anyone using a screen a lot, even on social media, obviously can have associated increased rates of obesity, irregular or dysregulated sleep, something that we know is very important, particularly in this age group, an increased risk of depression, and an overall decrease in [physical] activity."...

Ashton said parents should also encourage digital literacy in their kids, noting, "This isn't going away. We want to be able to use it and use it safely."

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