Does mobile phone use reshape adolescent brains?

by | Kids and Teens Health, Mental Health

Much has already been written on the perils of too much screen time – that it’s sapping our willpower and ruining our concentration, mostly – but could mobile devices actually be messing with the brain’s development?

In this study, researchers wanted to test if the brains of adolescents differed depending on how frequently they checked social media apps like Facebook and Instagram. Over a three year period, they had the 12-15 year olds complete what’s called a ‘Social Incentive Delay’ task – a game in which they were shown adolescents with facial expressions that could be positive, negative or neutral. They also organised the adolescents into two groups – those who were ‘non-habitual’ in their phone-checking habits (meaning they didn’t often check social media) and those who were the opposite (habitual).

They found that as time went on, those kids who habitually checked social media grew more sensitive to the social feedback of the ‘Social Incentive Delay’ task – potentially, that they were more sensitised to social feedback. There was also a correlational change in their brain imaging, meaning there was a marked difference in the brain scans of those habitual and non-habitual checkers.

What’s less clear from this study is whether this is a good or bad thing – are these changes and a potential greater sensitivity to social feedback problematic? More work is needed to better understand exactly what the implications of these shifts in brain development may be.


Maza MT, Fox KA, Kwon S, et al. Association of Habitual Checking Behaviors on Social Media With Longitudinal Functional Brain Development. JAMA Pediatr. 2023;177(2):160–167. Available from doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.4924