Social media makes children insecure, study finds

Is social media creating a generation of thin-skinned Americans? Children who are constantly on Instagram and Snapchat become ‘hypersensitive’ to criticism as adults, study suggests

  • Regions in the brain linked to reward and punishment are overactive
  • This could lead social media-addicted kids to grow up being ‘hypersensitive’
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Social media is reprogramming children’s brains and creating a generation of thin-skinned adults, a study suggests.

Youngsters see regions in the brain that control feelings of reward and punishment become overreactive compared to their peers who are not always online.

Researchers say the changes indicate that social media-addicted kids will grow up to become ‘hypersensitive’ to feedback from others.

It comes amid concerns the pandemic has made more children than ever addicted to social media. A study last month suggested lockdowns damaged their ability to stand up straight because they spent so much time engrossed in technology.

Scientists warn that social media-addicted kids could grow up 'hypersensitive' to feedback from others (stock image)

Scientists warn that social media-addicted kids could grow up ‘hypersensitive’ to feedback from others (stock image)

Dr Eva Telzer, assistant professor in developmental psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author of the study, said: ‘Our findings suggest that checking behaviors on social media in early adolescence may tune the brain’s sensitivity to potential social rewards and punishments.

‘Individuals with habitual checking behaviors showed initial hypoactivation but increasing sensitivity to potential social cues over time.

‘Those with non-habitual checking behaviors showed initial hyperactivation and decreasing sensitivity over time.’

The researchers studied 178 12-year-olds from three public middle schools in North Carolina, US.

Each participant reported how often they checked popular social media platforms Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram.

They then took part in a Social Incentive Delay task where their brain responses were measured when they were anticipating receiving social rewards and avoiding social punishments.

During adolescence the brain undergoes significant changes, making it a crucial period of development.

Dr Telzer added: ‘The brain undergoes significant structural and functional re-organisation during adolescence.

‘Neural regions involved in motivational relevance and affective become hyperactive, orienting teens to rewarding stimuli in their environment, particularly from peers.’

According to the researchers, 78 percent of 13 to 17-year-olds report checking their devices at least hourly each day.

A further 46 per cent say they check them ‘almost constantly’.

Dr Telzer said: ‘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.’

She added: ‘This longitudinal cohort study suggests that social media behaviors in early adolescence may be associated with changes in adolescents’ neural development, specifically neural sensitivity to potential social feedback.

‘Further research examining long-term prospective 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.’

The study was published in JAMA Pediatrics and was supported by a National Institutes of Health grant and the Winston Family Foundation.

Social media could be harmful to young people, UK official warns

It is unlikely to make them very popular at home.

But parents should resist buying their children a smartphone – and should instead stick to an old-fashioned device without internet access, the Children’s Commissioner has advised.

Dame Rachel de Souza warned about the dangers of social media, referencing the case of Molly Russell, 14, who took her own life after being bombarded with self-harm and suicide content.

‘I think parents should think long and hard about monitored access to social media or actually access to social media at all,’ she told The Sunday Telegraph.

‘I do feel strongly that we need to be careful and manage this.’

Dame Rachel also called on ministers to show ‘moral purpose’ and ensure new internet laws, under the long-awaited Online Safety Bill, are passed.

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