Girls and boys might be more vulnerable to the negative effects of social media use at different times during their adolescence, according to research published today by an international team of scientists, including experts from the Oxford Internet Institute.
In a study published in Nature Communications, UK data shows, girls experience a negative link between social media use and life satisfaction when they are 11-13 years old and boys when they are 14-15 years old. Increased social media use also predicts lower life satisfaction at age 19 years.
Sensitivity to social media use might be linked to developmental changes, possibly changes in the structure of the brain, or to puberty, which occurs later in boys than in girls
This suggests sensitivity to social media use might be linked to developmental changes, possibly changes in the structure of the brain, or to puberty, which occurs later in boys than in girls. But, for both, social media use at the age of 19 years was again associated with a decrease in life satisfaction. At this age, say the researchers, it is possible social changes – such as leaving home or starting work – may make us vulnerable.
Social media has fundamentally changed how young people spend time, share information and talk to others. This has led to widespread concern about its potential negative impact. Yet, even after years of research, there is still considerable uncertainty about how social media relates to wellbeing. The team looked for a connection between estimated social media use and reported life satisfaction and found key periods of adolescence where social media use was associated with a subsequent decrease in life satisfaction. The researchers also found teens who have lower than average life satisfaction later use more social media.
The researchers also found teens who have lower than average life satisfaction later use more social media
Dr Amy Orben, from the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said, ‘The link between social media use and mental wellbeing is clearly very complex. Changes within our bodies, such as brain development and puberty, and in our social circumstances appear to make us vulnerable at particular times of our lives.’
She maintained, ‘I wouldn’t say that there is a specific age group we should all be worried about. We should all be reflecting on our social media use and encouraging those conversations but we need to understand what is driving these changes across the age groups and between genders. There are very large individual differences, so there may be certain teenagers that benefit from their use of social media whilst at the same time, someone else is harmed.’
We should all be reflecting on our social media use and encouraging those conversations but we need to understand what is driving these changes across the age groups and between genders
Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute said, ‘Currently the amount of time young people spend on social media is a “black box” to scientists and parents alike. To improve our science we need better data and to improve parenting around tech we need to start a new conversation. It’s not about social media being good or bad, it’s about what young people are up to, why they are using it, and how they feel about it fits into the greater picture of family life.’
Dr Orben added, ‘With our findings, rather than debating whether or not the link exists, we can now focus on the periods of our adolescence where we now know we might be most at risk and use this as a springboard to explore some of the really interesting questions.’
It’s not about social media being good or bad, it’s about what young people are up to, why they are using it, and how they feel about it fits into the greater picture of family life
Professor Przybylski agreed and said, ‘To pinpoint which individuals might be influenced by social media, more research is needed that combines objective behavioural data with biological and cognitive measurements of development. We therefore call on social media companies and other online platforms to do more to share their data with independent scientists, and, if they are unwilling, for governments to show they are serious about tackling online harms by introducing legislation to compel these companies to be more open.’
The team, including psychologists, neuroscientists and modellers, analysed two UK datasets comprising some 84,000 individuals between the ages of 10 and 80 years old. These included longitudinal data – that is, data that tracks individuals over a period of time – on 17,400 young people aged 10-21 years old. The researchers are from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour.
The researchers are keen to point out that, while their findings show at a population level that there is a link between social media use and poorer wellbeing, it is not yet possible to predict which individuals are most at risk.
Orben, A et al. Windows of developmental sensitivity to social media. Nat Comms; 28 March 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-29296-3