New research says the ill effects of social media on teenagers is overstated

A new study has shown that social media has a “trivial” effect on teenagers in terms of life satisfaction. The study titled, “Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction” was published in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Applying transparent and innovative statistical approaches we show that social media effects are not a one-way street, they are nuanced, reciprocal, possibly contingent on gender, and arguably trivial in size,” the authors write.

There has been a lot of speculation related to the ill effects of social media on teenagers. The results showed that the girls reduced the use of social media because they felt discontented. Similar results were not seen among boys, they noted. Prof Andy Przybylski, coauthor of the research from Oxford University explained, “99.75% of a young person’s life satisfaction across a year has nothing to do with whether they are using more or less social media”.

Image Credit: Burdun Iliya / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Burdun Iliya / Shutterstock

According to Przybylski it is not the time spent on social media that can affect the wellbeing of the children. He explained, “It is entirely possible that there are other, specific, aspects of social media that are really not good for kids … or that there are some young people who are more or less vulnerable because of some background factor.” He said that parents need to talk to their children about their experiences on social media rather than “crying wolf” about its ill effects. Amy Orben, first author of the research, also from Oxford University said, “Just as things went awry offline, things will also go awry online, and it is really important for that communication channel to be open.”

The researchers said that there have been many studies that show the negative feelings associated with social media use. The team looked at data from 12,672 teenagers aged between 10 to 15 years from United Kingdom between 2009 and 2016. They analyzed over 2,000 different questions in different ways. They also included different aspects of a teen’s home life. Finally the results revealed that there was no actual link between life satisfaction and time spent on social media by teenagers. They found that different children showed up different results as well as individual children also showed different results with time. They then took an average look at all these analyses and found that children who are on social media are only slightly more likely to be dissatisfied with life.

The variables that the team used included, “How many hours do you spend chatting or interacting with friends through a social website like [Bebo, Facebook, Myspace] on a normal school day?” (5-point scale); (ii) six statements reflecting different life satisfaction domains (7-point visual analog scale); and (iii) seven child-, caregiver-, and household-level control variables.”

Orben explained, “Changes in an adolescent’s media use can explain only 0.25% of changes in their life satisfaction one year later. Vice versa, fluctuations in their life satisfaction can only explain 0.04% of changes in their social media use one year later, which is a tiny effect as well.” They also looked at gender differences. They noted that among girls the effects was slightly more evident. Girls were more likely to feel dissatisfaction with life, school life, school work, family and friends when exposed to social media for longer. The effects of time spent on social media did not have an effect on satisfaction with appearance among the girls though said the researchers. General dissatisfaction among the girls led to reduction in their time spent on social media they noted.

The authors agree that one of the major problems of this study that the time spent on social media was self reported by the teenagers. In addition the exact activity of the children on social media or social platforms was not noted.

Prof Liz Twigg from Portsmouth University is another researcher who is also working on the effects of social media on teenagers. She lauded this study saying, “As the authors themselves recognise, no study like this provides definitive evidence, but this one certainly provides compelling evidence. In population terms, social media use may not be the source of harm for children’s mental health that we often think.”

Dr. Max Davie, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in a statement said, “This paper suggests that social media has limited effect on teenage life satisfaction. We recommend that families follow our guidance published earlier this year and continue to avoid screen use for one hour before bed since there are other reasons beside mental health for children to need a good night's sleep.”

Social media and depression

Researcher Yvonne Kelly from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London and her colleagues published a paper this January in the Lancet titled, “Social media use and adolescent mental health: Findings from the UK Millennium cohort study”. The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Their objective was to assess if social media use in teenagers was associated with depressive symptoms in them and also investigates other causes of depression among these teenagers including “online harassment, sleep, self-esteem and body image.” The team included 10,904 14 year olds from the UK Millennium Cohort Study and noted that social media affected girls more than boys. They compared children with 1 to 3 hours of daily time on social media with children using these media for 3 to 5 hours. The latter showed a 21 and 26 percent increase in depressive scores among boys compared to girls. Similarly compared to low use vs over 5 hours social media use, the increase in scores was 50 percent in girls compared to 35 percent in boys. There were other factors among heavy users including “online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem and poor body image,” write the authors.

Authors concluded, “Findings are highly relevant for the development of guidelines for the safe use of social media and calls on industry to more tightly regulate hours of social media use.”

Social identity formation

Researchers led by Betul Keles who is a faculty from Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery King’s College London also studied the effects of social media on depressive and anxiety symptoms among teenagers. Their study titled, “A systematic review: the influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents” was published in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth in March 2019.

Theirs was a systematic review in which they looked at effects of social media on psyche of teenagers from previous studies that have been published. They found 13 studies that were relevant for their purpose and covered a total of 21,231 teenagers. Their analysis looked at variables related to teenagers and social media including, “time spent, activity, investment and addiction”. They noted that these four aspects were all strongly correlated with “depression, anxiety and psychological distress” among the teenagers.

The authors write, “Adolescence is the period of personal and social identity formation,  and much of this development is now reliant on social media. Due to their limited capacity for self-regulation and their vulnerability to peer pressure, adolescents may not evade the potentially adverse effects of social media use, and consequently, they are at greater risk of developing mental disorder.”’

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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