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29 March 2022

Does social media make children feel worse?

Social media’s link to wellbeing, particularly among young people, is far more tenuous than much of the discourse on the internet insists.

By Sarah Manavis

There are few subjects in the past ten years that have triggered more hand-wringing among middle-aged adults than the perceived ills brought down upon teens and vulnerable young people at the hands of social media. We hear endless outcries about the damage done by smartphones, the safety issues of the internet and, most recently, the destructive impact that social media has on mental health.

But despite the cyclical discourse, there has rarely been much proof of this alleged impact. This pattern is not unusual online – in a recent piece for Gawker, the culture writer Jason Okundaye outlined this phenomenon of specious posting, where people insist that “things that sound true… must be true”.

The negative impact of social media on children just seems to make sense: it feels only logical that it would make kids feel worse about themselves. And yet, while hundreds of studies have been conducted in an attempt to find a link – and better yet, some significant causation – almost all have been to no avail. This nagging belief continues to drive researchers on the subject (no doubt spurred on by millions of concerned parents). On 28 March, a landmark new study was released that finds some of the strongest links between social media and mental health. It was reported with the usual spin: “Teenage social media use linked to less life-satisfaction for some,” read the BBC headline. “Social media negatively affects female teens before males, study finds,” said the Daily Mail.

However, while the researchers did reveal some interesting findings, their study demonstrated once again the difficulty in blaming apps for teenagers’ degrading wellbeing. 

The study, which was led by a number of prominent scientists at the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, was conducted over seven years and involved more than 84,000 participants across the UK aged 10 to 80. It found that there were two periods of time when heavy social media use was linked to “lower life satisfaction”: around puberty (for girls, aged 11-13; for boys, aged 14-15), and for everyone aged 19. However, the leaders of the study concluded that not only did this not apply to all young people at these ages, but that there was still a significant amount of uncertainty around social media’s link to wellbeing.

Speaking about their findings, Dr Amy Orben, a group leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge, who led the study, said that this link was “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,” she said.

“It’s not possible to pinpoint the precise processes that underlie this vulnerability,” added Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge, and a co-author of the study. “Adolescence is a time of cognitive, biological and social change, all of which are intertwined, making it difficult to disentangle one factor from another.” 

Though extremely thorough in terms of its scale, the study also had many blindspots. Participants were only surveyed once a year, despite adolescence being a notoriously tumultuous time emotionally, and participants were not surveyed on what type of social media activities they were using: whether it was posting regularly on Instagram, or gaming with friends, or endlessly scrolling TikTok. This meant that, in the few cases where there was a link to poor mental health, it was less clear what kind of social media usage was responsible. The researchers also acknowledged that the study could be evidence of the inverse effect: that social media might not trigger poor wellbeing, but that poor wellbeing drives young people towards spending more time on social media (which could have been a positive coping mechanism). 

Speaking to the New York Times about the study, Michaeline Jensen, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina, pointed out that it recorded a very small effect, as well as leaving a lot of questions unanswered about what this truly means for the average young person. She noted that “very few of these kids would be going from normal functioning to clinical levels of depression”, and that while social media carries risks, it can also bring many positives. “I think a lot of times that does get overlooked because we’re so focused on risks.” 

The impact that social media has on how we see ourselves is very real. From the boom in plastic surgery, with those seeking procedures citing Instagram face filters as the reason, to the downsides of the influencer economy, there should be no doubt that what we do online can warp how people view themselves in the world. However, this study is further proof that social media’s link to wellbeing, particularly among young people, continues to be far more tenuous than much of the discourse on the internet insists, and nods towards an impact that’s less of an epidemic than it’s made out to be.

[See also: “Social media is sentient neoliberalism”: Symeon Brown on the exploitative influencer economy]

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