Girls and boys might be more vulnerable to the negative effects of social media use at different times during their adolescence, according to a UK research this week.
In a study involving University of Oxford and Cambridge experts published in ‘Nature Communications’, data shows that 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 also predicts lower life satisfaction at age 19 years for both genders. This suggests 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.
“The link between social media use and mental wellbeing is clearly very complex,” said Dr Amy Orben, from the University of Cambridge, who led the study.
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“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.
“I wouldn’t say that there is a specific age group we should all be worried about. 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,” she added.
The expert noted the very large individual differences, which means there may be certain teenagers that benefit from their use of social media whilst at the same time, someone else is harmed.
For both girls and boys, the research revealed that social media use at the age of 19 years was associated with a decrease in life satisfaction. At this age, say the researchers, it is possible social changes – such as leaving home or starting work – may make us vulnerable.
“Currently the amount of time young people spend on social media is a ‘black box’ to scientists and parents alike,” said Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute.
“To improve our science we need better data and to improve parenting around tech we need to start a new conversation. It’s not about social media being good or bad, it’s about what young people are up to, why they are using it, and how they feel about it fits into the greater picture of family life,” he said.
The study notes that social media has fundamentally changed how young people spend time, share information and talk to others. This has led to widespread concern about its potential negative impact. Yet, even after years of research, there is still considerable uncertainty about how social media relates to wellbeing.
The team therefore set out to look 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 subsequent decrease in life satisfaction. The researchers also found teens who have lower than average life satisfaction later use more social media.
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“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,” adds Dr Orben.
The team, 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 team also included researchers from the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. They 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.