Impact of social media on wellbeing varies across adolescence

This is a very interesting study by Amy Orben on how the impact of social media on wellbeing varies across adolescence. Do read on what the findings are, but first, read these important limitations:

The study has multiple limitations that need to be considered. First, to interpret the parameters from our analyses as estimates of causal effects one would need to adopt the following assumptions: (a) there are no time-varying unobserved confounders that impact the relation between social media use and life satisfaction; (b) the model adequately accounts for unobserved time-invariant confounding through the inclusion of a random intercept; (c) there is no measurement error in the variables; (d) the time interval between studies (one year) is the right length to capture the effects of interest; and (e) the bidirectional links estimated by our longitudinal model are linear in nature. Only if these assumptions are met can this observational study be said to capture the causal effects between social media and life satisfaction. Second, the data are self-report and therefore only allow inferences about the impact of self-estimated time on social media, rather than objectively measured social media use.

From the press release:

In a study published today in Nature Communications, the researchers show that, in UK data, 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 again predicts lower life satisfaction at age 19 years. At other times the link was not statistically significant.

In just over a decade, social media has fundamentally changed how we spend our time, share information about ourselves, and talk to others. This has led to widespread concern about its potential negative impact, both on individuals and on the wider society. Yet, even after years of research, there is still considerable uncertainty about how social media use relates to wellbeing.

A team of scientists 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 University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour.

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. In the opposite direction, the researchers also found that teens who have lower than average life satisfaction use more social media one year later.

In girls, social media use between the ages of 11 and 13 years was associated with a decrease in life satisfaction one year later, whereas in boys this occurred between the ages of 14 and 15 years. The differences suggest that 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 requires further research.

In both females and males, social media use at the age of 19 years was again associated with a decrease in life satisfaction a year later. At this age, say the researchers, it is possible that social changes — such as leaving home or starting work — may make us particularly vulnerable. Again, this requires further research.

At other times, the link between social media use and life satisfaction one year later was not statistically significant. Decreases in life satisfaction also predicted increases in social media use one year later; however this does not change across age and or differ between the sexes.

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 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.”

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.”

Further complicating the relationship is the fact — previously reported and confirmed by today’s findings — that not only can social media use negatively impact wellbeing, but that the reverse is also true and lower life satisfaction can drive increased social media use.

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.

Professor Rogier Kievit, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behaviour, said: “Our statistical modelling examines averages. 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.”

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 harms by introducing legislation to compel these companies to be more open.”

Abstract of the study:

The relationship between social media use and life satisfaction changes across adolescent development. Our analyses of two UK datasets comprising 84,011 participants (10–80 years old) find that the cross-sectional relationship between self-reported estimates of social media use and life satisfaction ratings is most negative in younger adolescents. Furthermore, sex differences in this relationship are only present during this time. Longitudinal analyses of 17,409 participants (10–21 years old) suggest distinct developmental windows of sensitivity to social media in adolescence, when higher estimated social media use predicts a decrease in life satisfaction ratings one year later (and vice-versa: lower estimated social media use predicts an increase in life satisfaction ratings). These windows occur at different ages for males (14–15 and 19 years old) and females (11–13 and 19 years old). Decreases in life satisfaction ratings also predicted subsequent increases in estimated social media use, however, these were not associated with age or sex.

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