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New UNC psychology study links social media to adolescent brain development

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DTH Photo Illustration. UNC is working on a new study on how adolescents' brains may become more sensitive with increased social media usage.

Kara Fox and Maria Maza, two UNC doctoral candidates studying psychology, made a stir in their field earlier this month with the publication of a groundbreaking study

The researchers came together as co-leaders and authors to observe and extend research at the University about the effects of social media on adolescent brain development. 

Results showed that children who checked social media more often were prone to be more sensitive to social feedback over time. This is one of the first studies of its kind, showing the long-term relationship between social media and its effects on an impressionable and growing generation.

“This study puts UNC and the Center (Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development) at the forefront of research on the role of social media use and adolescent brain development,” Eva Telzer, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and co-director of the center, said in a statement. 

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Winston Family Foundation, included data that was collected in multiple waves through a larger study called Project NeuroTeen. Previously collected longitudinal data from NeuroTeen inspired Fox and Maza to begin putting together this more targeted study, last year. 

A sample of about 200 young children, who were recruited from partnership schools in rural North Carolina, were the main subjects throughout the project. The students were tasked with noting their social media intake starting at age 12, Telzer, who oversaw the study, said.

Over the course of three years, the same students kept up with the surveys and also had to complete a brain scan once a year. Through these brain scans, Fox and Maza were able to observe whether certain regions of the brain associated with social rewards and punishments were activated. 

“We found that teens who checked social media more habitually experienced greater activation in several brain regions that help teens determine how salient social feedback is and how motivated teens are to get it,” Maza said in a statement. “So, the more these brain regions are activated, the more these teens were sensitive to social feedback.”

The most surprising aspect of the study to Maza and Fox was that the initial brain scans of the children were already different, suggesting that these variations start even before the age of 12. In other words, kids that checked social media more often at the start of the study were initially less sensitive to social feedback, but this sensitivity increased over time. 

Despite the fear of what this study could mean for children, Maza said shielding children from social media when technology is at its peak is likely pointless and potentially dangerous. 

Fox said that the results of the study have caused some panic amongst a parent audience, many worrying that social media is hurting their children. However, the long term impact of social media and the potential developmental precursors that relate to the surprising trajectories seen in the study, are unknown, she said. 

"(Kids) are aware of it negatively impacting them sometimes, and they also want you to know about why they’re using it and all the benefits they are getting from it and why they feel compelled to use it,” Fox said.

She said future research could show that the brain is becoming better at responding to its environment or that it could lead to heightened anxiousness or depression. Despite various hypotheses and predictions, incoming generations are inevitably having to adapt and learn to interact with social media and technology, the researchers said. 

"Technology and social media can provide both negative and positive opportunities for kids and teens,” Maza said in a statement. “We need to help provide them with tools and skills to be able to navigate these digital contexts so that they can get the positive benefits tech affords.”

Continual community interaction and conversation will help similar research to continue in good quality and in ways that are helpful to kids, Fox said. 


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