Social media use is more strongly associated with poor mental health in adolescents and teens in the years around puberty and when they are likely to be about to leave the home, according to one new study† Teens who used social media more often during those periods scored lower on life satisfaction measures a year later.
Many researchers say things like Instagram and TikTok probably aren’t all bad for all adolescents. They’re also not quite right and can cause documented body image problems, but the impact varies: for some children, at some point it can help to socialize and build relationships; for others, it can be a blow to their self-esteem at other times.
The challenge was to figure out which teens are at risk — and when they are at risk – so experts can develop strategies to help them.
“Adolescence is a time of tremendous cognitive, biological and social change. These changes interact with social media in very interesting ways,” said study author Amy Orben, a psychologist who heads the Digital Mental Health program at the University of Cambridge. “There’s probably huge variability between how different individuals use social media and how their lives affect their use.”
It is a particular challenge because the impact of social media on mental health is likely to be small. “Predicting mental health will always have a very small impact because mental health and wellness are so complex,” Orben says. “Any behavior will be just a very, very small part of that pie.”
To delve deeper into the relationship, Orben and her team first looked at a study of more than 72,000 people aged 10 to 80 in the United Kingdom. They were surveyed up to seven times between 2011 and 2018, asking a range of questions, including their life satisfaction and the estimated amount of time they spend on social media each day.
The team focused on adolescents and found that for people ages 16 to 21, both very low and very high social media use were both associated with lower life satisfaction. In 10- to 15-year-olds there was no significant difference in life satisfaction between children reporting low and high use of social media. But in that group, girls with high social media use had lower life satisfaction than boys.
The team also examined data from a survey of more than 17,000 10- to 21-year-olds, identifying separate windows for boys and girls in their early teens, where higher social media use was associated with lower satisfaction with them one year later. life – 14 to 15 for boys and 11 to 13 for girls. The relationship emerged for both sexes at the age of 19. The windows seem to correspond to the onset of puberty for both boys and girls (girls tend to enter puberty earlier) and major social transition – many young adults in the UK Departure from home around 7 pm.
Other types of research could help uncover the reasons for those windows, Orben says: Studies of things like social rejection susceptibility or impulse control, compared with these types of datasets, could help understand why children of certain ages may have worse experiences after using them. social media.
Orben cautioned that there are limitations to the study — it cannot show that social media use caused changes in life satisfaction, only that there is a relationship. It also relies on people reporting how much they use social media, which can be inaccurate. That’s a challenge for most social media surveys. Companies like Meta don’t give researchers access to internal data that could give scientists a more objective look at social media use — things like how long people use the platforms or who they interact with.
Future research could help identify the groups of adolescents and teens who may be experiencing the most negative effects from social media. “Understanding who has influence, to what extent, how and why, you can create a better environment to nullify those risks,” Orben says. Social media isn’t like sugar, she stresses, but experts understand the health effects of things like sugar. They can give some people a little boost (like how the UK banned candy bars from checkout lines). They can also provide people with existing health conditions, such as diabetes, with more immediate help around their sugar intake.
Experts want to create comparable policy frameworks or recommendations for social media, which can help prevent negative effects, especially for vulnerable people. But they need to better address the problem first — they still don’t have enough insight into who might benefit from what type of help, Orben says. “We don’t fully understand the problem. So we can’t respond to that.”