Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction

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In our increasingly technophilic world, teens are spending large parts of their day engaging in screen-based behaviours, and specifically, social media. With regular media stories on the negative consequences of using platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, parents, teachers and other caregivers are often worried about exposure to online forums and the blurred line between the internet and reality. Previous work has largely focused on the negative aspects of technology, but what about the benefits?

According to a new large-scale study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, social media use had little impact on life satisfaction across the adolescent population. The effects were found to be gender specific and potentially reciprocal over time. In other words, contrary to what we’ve often heard about the negative contribution of social media to mental health, the authors found that social media had no impact on how happy (or unhappy) teens were.

Authors of this study analyzed data from as many as 5492 teens using a nationally representative dataset based on the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2009-2016).

The authors concluded “that social media use is not, in and of itself, a strong predictor of life satisfaction across the adolescent population. Instead, social media effects are nuanced, small at best, reciprocal over time, gender specific, and contingent on analytical methods.”

Specifically, there was no difference in life satisfaction between teens that used more social media compared to teens that use less social media. As well, the authors found no relationship between long term social media use (i.e., if social media use went up over time) and life satisfaction and vice versa (i.e., if poor life satisfaction early on drove teens to use more social media as they go older). However, when they looked at girls separately, increased social media was a predictor of slightly decreased life satisfaction across all domains except for appearance – though these effects were found to be small.

What is the take home message? The link between life satisfaction and social media use is far more nuanced than what is currently portrayed in the media. And as authors point out, relationships that get reported are often based on cross-sectional data, or weak relationships. Furthermore, many of the social media platforms included in the study are no longer active, highlighting the fact that the evolution of technology far outpaces that of population health research. While social media may have both positive and negative aspects, we do recommend following the Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines when possible.

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