Social media use found to impact boys and girls at different ages
New research published in Nature Communications has found boy and girls can be vulnerable to the negative effects of social media use at different times during their adolescence. The study, from researchers at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, indicates well-being can influence social media use, as well as the other way around, and that effects can vary greatly between different individuals.
Unpacking the influence of digital screen time on children is probably one of the most divisive modern parenting subjects. While early studies did detect links between mental health problems in children and screen use, many current researchers understand the relationship is much more complex than X hours of screen use = Y increase in depression.
Following some studies finding digital screen time being linked to increased well-being in teenagers, many researchers now break down analyses to focus on different types of screen use. After all, an hour on an iPad doing homework is not the same as an hour scrolling through Instagram on a smartphone.
A 2019 study followed nearly 4,000 children for four years and found increases in depression were more linked to social media use and television viewing than using computers or playing video games. The study couldn’t conclude causality in the relationship, but it was an early indication that some types of screen use may be more harmful than others.
This new research focused specifically on social media use and its impact on children across different developmental phases. Looking at data gathered on more than 17,000 children at several points in time, the researchers wanted to understand whether there were certain points in a child’s life where they were more vulnerable to the effects of social media.
The findings revealed increased use of social media in girls between the ages of 11 and 13 correlated with a decrease in life satisfaction scores one year later. In boys that pattern was detected a little later in their development, between the ages of 14 and 15.
The only other age group that displayed a predictive link between social media use and life satisfaction scores was older teenagers aged 19 years. This older association included both sexes. ??
“The link between social media use and mental wellbeing is clearly very complex,” said Amy Orban, lead researcher on the project. “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.”
At no other time between the ages of 10 and 19 did the researchers detect a correlation between increased social media use and decreases in life satisfaction a year later. However, perhaps most importantly, the researchers did detect a consistent association across all ages and sexes between decreased life satisfaction scores and increased social media use one year later.
These findings affirm the relationship between social media use and well-being in children is deeply complex and bi-directional. Not only is it not as simple as suggesting social media use harms teenage mental health, but according to co-author Rogier Kievet, there was an extraordinary variety of individual responses to social media use, including some teenagers experiencing positive outcomes from increased use.
“Our statistical modeling examines averages,” explained Kievet. “This means not every young person is going to experience a negative impact on their wellbeing from social media use. For some, it will often have a positive impact. Some might use social media to connect with friends, or cope with a certain problem or because they don't have anyone to talk to about a particular problem or how they feel – for these individuals, social media can provide valuable support.”
Andrew Przybylski, from the Oxford Internet Institute and co-author on this new study, said the next step for the research will be to try and drill down into what specific individual characteristics can be identified to help parents and doctors catch those young people who may be the most vulnerable to the negative effects of social media. According to Przybylski, to do this research it will be crucial for social media companies to collaborate with scientists and share their data.
“To pinpoint which individuals might be influenced by social media, more research is needed that combines objective behavioral data with biological and cognitive measurements of development,” Przybylski said. “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.”
Bernadka Dubicka, a mental health expert from the University of Manchester who did not work on this new study, said it is a vital first step in understanding how social media use can be both harmful and helpful in young people’s lives. Dubicka does point out the data used in the research only covers a period up to 2018, so it is important to follow up this study with more recent data.
“This is an interesting study, reflects the complexity seen in vulnerable adolescents in clinical practice, and finally moves away from the unhelpful dichotomy about whether social media is or isn’t harmful – assessing vulnerability in adolescence is a complex and dynamic process which needs to consider multiple factors at any one point in time, including the relationship with social media,” Dubicka said.
Orban is cautious to stress to parents that these findings don’t mean there should be concern around excessive social media use during certain periods of adolescence. Instead, the findings affirm the challenges in understanding the needs of individuals and engendering open communication between parents and children around specific social media use.
“I wouldn’t say that there is a specific age group we should all be worried about,” Orban added. “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.”
The new study was published in the journal Nature Communications.