How Social Media Use Affects Adolescent Brain Development

A neuropsychologist explains what we know about how habitual use of social media and technology impacts young brains.

An adolescent uses her phone to look at social media, possibly impacting her brain development.
An adolescent uses her phone to look at social media, possibly impacting her brain development.

Social media has revolutionized the way people stay in touch and interact with the world. But a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics suggests social media is changing something else too: the brain development of adolescents. Researchers found that kids who habitually check social media had changes in parts of the brain that control social rewards and punishment. Previous research has shown a connection between high levels of social media use and increased depression among middle and high school youth; with new evidence that social media can also alter brain development, parents and caretakers may have questions about the overall safety of letting children use social media.

To help explain the study and where it fits into what we know about the impact of technology on developing brains, Health Matters spoke to Dr. Heidi Allison Bender, a neuropsychologist with NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

The JAMA study said the kids who habitually checked social media showed a distinct neurodevelopment trajectory within various regions of the brain. What does that mean?
Dr. Bender: It means social media platforms are impacting a child’s brain development in a very specific way. These platforms give adolescents the opportunity for increased social interaction at a time when their brains are especially sensitive to social feedback, particularly reward feedback. Over the course of three years, the researchers looked at the brain activity of teens who habitually checked social media against those who didn’t and found changes in the areas of the brain associated with social rewards and punishments.

It’s too early to say if social media was the only cause of these changes, but it does suggest that more studies are needed to better understand brain development in the age of social media.

Dr. Heidi Allison Bender

Dr. Heidi Allison Bender

What brain regions were affected?
There are many different areas impacted among adolescents with habitual social media checking. For example, the amygdala, one of the emotional centers of the brain, was preferentially affected. It’s the part of the brain that makes us fear, that makes us react. The part of the brain responsible for judgement, reasoning and rewards, called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, was also impacted. Other brain areas involved in the processing of positive or negative emotions showed lower sensitivity to social anticipation in those who checked more frequently than those who did not. There were also long term, or longitudinal, brain changes in these adolescents that were also seen over time in these, and related, brain regions.

What do these changes in brain development mean? Do we know if they are harmful or beneficial?
We don’t have enough information to know the long-term ramifications to brain health as yet, since this is the first generation where social media has been prevalent since birth. We need more studies to see how these changes translate to a person’s overall ability to navigate things like personal and professional relationships later in life.
Is it necessarily a bad thing to have more sensitivity to social cues? Maybe it will make someone more emotionally adept. These changes in brain development don’t necessarily have to be negative.

Could this sensitivity to rewards turn into an addiction?
I don’t think it’s exactly an addiction, but it could spiral into an elevated need for frequent stimulation to prompt a “dopamine dump” or release. Dopamine plays a role in how people experience pleasure, so kids could spend their time looking for that next reward from social media instead of experiencing the joys in real life.

Are these changes to the brain reversible?
Typically when neurons are “pruned,” meaning you lose neurons that aren’t used and you don’t get this information back, this leaves room for new connections to be made through experiences. This is called neuroplacticity, which means that the brain has the ability to evolve and change over time based on whatever has happened to it in the past. For example, if someone has a stroke and the area of the brain involved in speech is permanently damaged, intensive speech therapy can support new neural connections and help the brain rewire itself to give a person their speech back.

Kids have rapidly changing brains that are most malleable in childhood, so in this discussion of social media changing brain development, it’s possible they will develop new neural connections in response to their experiences online.

How does this study fit into what we know about technology and brain development in general?
We know from previous studies that more than 50 percent of kids 4 years and younger are engaging with smartphones or tablets on a regular basis. The “tween” group, ages 8-t0-12, spend four to six hours on phones or watching screens. It’s an incredibly important time for them to be spending so much time with two-dimensional relationships as opposed to engaging with people in real life.

Increased screen time can reduce the integrity of brain structures that support early literacy in pre-kindergarten students. You can see delays in language acquisition and problems with sustained attention and multitasking. The 0-to-5 age range is a critical period where your brain is learning and making neurological connections, and too much screen time can tamp down on the brain’s development. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry recommend no screen time until kids are 18 to 24 months old, and then gradually introducing screen time as they get older.

What has the impact been on kids who missed out on social interactions due to COVID and had no choice but to increase their screen time for virtual learning?
In the coming years we will likely see much more research dedicated to this group, the kids who were in first or second grade during the early days of the pandemic. Preliminary studies show that these kids, who are now in fourth or fifth grade, have weaker academic skills than other fourth or fifth grade students in the past. This was also a critical time for social and emotional development, and kids missed out on things like squabbling over toys.

The same way you can re-teach someone to speak after they’ve had a stroke, I think as we better understand the implications of virtual learning, we have the opportunity to support our youth who didn’t get the traditional kind of learning or in-person experiences due to COVID.

What should parents or caregivers know if they have adolescent children who use social media?
Try to have an open dialogue with your children about social media use, both the positives and the negatives. Social media can let you interact and engage with people you never would have before, but it can also be a space for cyberbullying or questionable content.

Kids don’t have frontal lobes that are fully functional. Your frontal lobe is what controls judgement, reasoning, planning, organization, or thinking of consequences, and it doesn’t fully develop until you’re around 21. So parents need to be their kid’s frontal lobe as they navigate the world of social media and help them exercise good judgement.

Heidi Allison Bender, Ph.D, is a board-certified neuropsychologist with NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and director of Neuropsychological Services at the Weill Cornell Medicine Brain and Spine Center. She specializes in the evaluation and treatment of patients of all ages with a wide range of neurological and cognitive disorders. Dr. Bender has expertise in evaluating patients to determine if they are candidates for epilepsy surgery and in cognitive remediation therapies appropriate for patients with a wide variety of cognitive challenges (i.e., after neurological surgery, cerebrovascular accidents, and other events). Dr. Bender has a special interest in the neuropsychological needs of non-native English speakers and patients born outside of the United States, and is active in professional groups working to reduce disparities in health care.

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