A 2023 study of middle school-aged children laid out some alarming findings. Scientists recruited more than one hundred and fifty children, all aged twelve, from rural North Carolina public schools. The children were surveyed regarding their social media usage, including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. Some of the kids rarely checked social media (one time or less per day), while others were glued to their screens, checking social media more than twenty times a day. The researchers performed functional MRIs, which are imaging studies that can evaluate brain anatomy and activity, on the children every year for three consecutive years. The researchers also asked the children a series of psychological questions.
Based on the answers to these questions, the scientists concluded that kids who check social media too often become hypersensitive to feedback from their peers. In other words, these children may enter a pathological psychological state, swinging from joy to dread, craving positive electronic reinforcement and fearing any disapproval mirrored in their screens.
The functional MRI results demonstrated that habitual social media users had significantly different brain activity than those who didn’t pay much attention to platforms like Snapchat and others. The observed differences were widespread and included the amygdala (part of the limbic system, which regulates emotions), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with executive functions such as focusing attention and decision-making), insula (responsible for sensory processing, self-awareness, and emotional guidance of social behavior), and ventral striatum (part of the brain’s reward system).
This new study confirms and expands upon previous knowledge:
TikTok may be the most concerning offender for the teenage brain. TikTok may even contribute to a psychogenic pseudo-Tourette’s syndrome in certain susceptible teenagers. Tourette’s syndrome is a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary abnormal movements (motor tics) and involuntary verbal outbursts. In 2021, doctors at several prestigious children’s hospitals identified a veritable epidemic of Tourette’s cases among psychologically fragile teenage girls. The doctors were initially perplexed, but investigations revealed a Munchausen-type link: a high association between Tourette’s in affected teenagers and binge-watching TikTok (particularly videos with the hashtag #Tourettes, which were viewed billions of times).
Instagram is not much better. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, scanned teenagers’ brains while they scrolled through their Instagram feeds. The scientists reported that when teenagers viewed their Instagram feeds, the reward systems in their brains lit up. Electronic devices can stimulate the release of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in cravings and desire. It’s akin to a sugar high. Another group of neuroscientists has reported that teens who use electronic media at night are at a higher risk for sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression.
Let’s not forget about Meta. Electronic addiction, like other addictions, may harm a young person’s brain. However, there’s something different, perhaps even worse, going on with social media addiction and the brain. In 2017, scientists from the University of Southern California reported that spending too much time glued to a Facebook feed may cause brain atrophy. The scientists studied 28 young people (with an average age of 20) who were addicted to Facebook. The volunteers were described as impulsive and unable to exert self-control regarding their social media usage. MRI studies were performed on these individuals and revealed reduced gray matter volumes (atrophy) in the amygdala, an area involved with emotion and memory formation.
How does Facebook addiction compare to other addictions? The brains of individuals with other addictions, such as gambling or drugs, were found to have alterations more widely spread throughout parts of the limbic system (a circuit composed of multiple brain areas, including the amygdala, involved in emotion formation and processing, learning, and memory). Facebook addiction appears to cause different brain effects than more general smartphone addiction. In 2020, German researchers reported some of the brain effects of smartphone addiction. The scientists conducted psychological tests on about fifty individuals, half of whom were determined to be addicted to smartphone use, and half of whom weren’t. The researchers performed volumetric MRIs on all the participants. They discovered that smartphone addiction is linked to brain atrophy in the insular cortex (an area that is active during psychological conflicts) and the inferior temporal cortex (an area involved in the recognition of patterns, faces, and objects). Smartphone addiction was correlated with both atrophy and decreased brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision-making.
The effects of social media and video games on the brains of teenagers were the subject of a documentary called “Screenagers.” It was reported that massive quantities of dopamine were released into the brain’s pleasure center when teens were presented with new bits of information, whether in the form of text, images, or videos, and they gazed at their screens with wide eyes.
The filmmakers documented MRI scans of the brains of kids who played 20 hours or more of video games a week. The evidence presented showed that these teenagers’ brain scans were similar to those of people addicted to drugs or alcohol. Scientists concluded that the brain changes caused by excess screen time are anatomical, occurring at a cellular level, not just psychological.
Animal studies have further supported the evidence that the teenage brain is particularly susceptible to the pernicious effects of electronic addiction, especially in terms of damaging the capacity to learn new material. Adolescent mice exposed to rapidly-paced media required three times longer to learn how to navigate a maze than non-exposed young mice.
The good news is that the damage may not be permanent. Reducing screen time may alleviate some of these symptoms. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania investigated the psychological changes caused by electronic addiction among college students. The scientists reported that students who limited their screen time to less than 30 minutes a day for as little as 3 weeks became less lonely and depressed.