The influence of social media use on well-being in adolescence

The influence of social media use on well-being in adolescence
© iStock/LeoPatrizi

Girls and boys could be more vulnerable to the negative effects of social media use at different times during adolescence.

Social media use has dramatically changed how society views itself, how people live and talk to others and the information retrieved. The rise in social media use has led to discussions about the potential negative impact on society.

However, social media use and well-being is a relatively under-studied area; a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour set out to understand the impact of social media use on well-being.

The study was published in Nature Communications.

The link between life satisfaction and social media use

The team of scientists included psychologists, neuroscientists, and modellers who analysed two UK datasets comprising around 84,000 individuals between the ages of 10 and 80 years old. Data included longitudinal data that tracks individuals over a period of time on 17,400 young people aged 10-21 years old.

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 decrease in life satisfaction 12 months later. They also found that teens with a lower-than-average life satisfaction use more social media one year later.

Key findings included:

  • In girls, social media use between 11-13 years was associated with a decrease in life satisfaction a year later. This behaviour occurred in boys between the ages of 14-15.

The researchers noted that this could be down to developmental changes such as changes in the structure of the brain or puberty. This requires further research.

  • Social media use in both genders by the age of 19 years was associated with a decrease in life satisfaction a year later.

This could be a result of social changes such as leaving home or starting work which can make young people feel particularly vulnerable. Similarly, this requires further research.

Dr Amy Orben, a group leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: “The link between social media use and mental well-being 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.”

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge and a co-author of the study, said: “It’s not possible to pinpoint the precise processes that underlie this vulnerability. Adolescence is a time of cognitive, biological and social change, all of which are intertwined, making it difficult to disentangle one factor from another. For example, it is not yet clear what might be due to developmental changes in hormones or the brain and what might be down to how an individual interacts with their peers.”

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.”

More research is vital

The researchers clarify that whilst they found a link between social media use and well-being, it is not possible to predict which individuals are most at risk.

Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, 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 harm by introducing legislation to compel these companies to be more open.”


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