The new idiot box: Long hours on social media alters the brain in children and young teens, makes them dull


It seems that we finally have scientific, empirical proof of what many people have believed in for years now –  that social media has a very adverse effect on children and young teens, and can even alter their brains. Neuroscientists at the University of North Carolina suggested in a recently published study that habitually checking social media as a young teenager leads to hypersensitivity to peer feedback and may potentially lead to permanent changes in the brain’s reward and motivation centres.

The new idiot box_ Long hours on social media alters the brain in children and young teens, makes them dull

In the study, the neuroscientists worked with a group of 169 teens between the ages of 12-15, and observed the way their brains developed, and compared it to their self-reported use of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

The neuroscientists discovered that children and teens with habitual usage or checking any of the aforementioned platforms more than 15 times a day, became increasingly sensitive to feedback, not just from their peers on social media, but in real life as well. 


The brain scans of these subjects showed increased activity in areas associated with reward processing, concentration, regulation and control, and the researchers observed that these appeared to contribute to positive feedback loops, further increasing their sensitivity to peer approval.

In comparison, those teens who said that they checked their social media apps only once at most every day showed a decrease in activity in these areas. This suggested that they were less concerned with feedback from peers or may have more self-control over compulsive behaviours.

“Teens who are habitually checking their social media are showing these pretty dramatic changes in the way their brains are responding, which could potentially have long-term consequences well into adulthood, sort of setting the stage for brain development over time,” study co-author Eva Telzer told the New York Times.

We also spoke to a couple of doctors, Dr Sudipto Chatterjee, a neurosurgeon at one of the largest hospitals in Kolkata and Dr Mukesh Dwivedi, another neuro specialist based out of Gurgaon who shared some amazing insights into how social media has an adverse effect on the minds and brains of children and young adults.

“We all have heard cases where social media has led young users, especially young girls to depression

and serious body dysmorphia. There have been many cases where people well into their teens have died by suicide because of social media and how it made them see themselves. While such drastic cases may be few and far between, there are studies that show that an abnormal exposure to social media, especially social media consumption can actually slow down the analytical portion of the brain,” says Dr Chatterjee.

“The manner in which social media platforms have designed their algorithms seems to be having a negative impact on how we process information and handle memories. It has also led to an alarming shortening of attention spans, not just in children and teens but in young adults as well,” says Dr Dwivedi.

So, does social media consumption make users, especially young teens and children slow? “The evidence seems to just so,” says Dr Dwivedi. “Studies show that while there hasn’t been a noticeable drop in IQ, children and young teens seem to be taking longer to grasp some complex concepts in maths, science and logical reasoning. It’s as if social media has replaced the television as the new idiot box,” he adds. 

However, it may not be the usage of social media itself, but the manner in which it is consumed. Says Dr Chatterjee, “While consuming social media beyond a certain limit is surely detrimental, what is actually problematic is the manner in which we use social media. More often than not, people would check their Instagram or Facebook within half an hour of walking up, sometimes as soon as they get out of bed. We have also seen people go to bed early but just lay there with their eyes glued to their phones, scrolling through their feeds, waiting to fall asleep. The blue light from the display alters your sleep cycle and messes it up. Prolonged exposure to blue light before you go to sleep will eventually have some physiological changes as well,” he added.