Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Brain Candy


Because we don't know yet how social media affects our brain, it needs to be consumed in moderation. Scheduling times to spend time with friends and family may make it easier to get offline. 

A recent longitudinal study examined the potential effects of social media use on adolescent brain development. Existing research has mostly focused on social media use behaviors and their consequences. This study goes further, exploring brain changes over time.


A key feature of social media is the social reward the user gets with “like” notifications, that supposedly contribute to higher use in search of more “likes.” Reward, affective salience, and behavior regulation brain circuits were hypoactive in adolescents who engaged more in social media at baseline compared to those who engaged less frequently. Over time, the highly engaged group had increased activation when administered a social feedback task, showing their increased interest in social rewards compared to those who did not habitually check social media. 


The authors concluded that social media use may be associated with changes in neural sensitivity to social feedback. However, these changes could be due to a normal progression of adolescents with certain temperamental traits (i.e. those engaging more on social media could have an innate higher orientation towards social reward). Additionally, the study did not control for other potential social rewards. What’s more, the findings don’t necessarily translate into negative consequences, as social sensitivity can be adaptive.


More research is needed to answer questions on social media use effects on youth’s brain development. This study shows that adolescents vary in their susceptibility to social feedback, including social media feedback, and that brain imaging can show divergent trajectories in social reward sensitivity over time. It’s a great start! 


It may be helpful to share these two points with young patients and their caregivers: 


1. Social media is best when used in moderation. 


2. Some people may have a tendency to engage more frequently on social media. It’s important to also find pleasure in activities that don’t involve screens. A few ideas are meeting with friends, spending time with family, exercising, and learning new things, among many others.