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Effects of Social Media on Teen Mental Health: A Missing Link

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 Social Media Effects on Teen Mental Health: A Missing Link

 Social Media Effect on Teen Mental Health

Adolescents’ specific stages of cognitive and social development are important for researchers to consider when examining social media’s effects on mental health.

There has been a parallel increase in teen mental health issues and the increasing amount of time teenagers spend on social media.

Adolescent rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide have risen dramatically over the past decade1. The time spent by young people online has also increased (see ‘worrying tendencies’). Governments everywhere feel pressure to tighten their oversight of the tech industry partly because of concerns that these tendencies are interconnected.

Protecting children from inappropriate material online is the goal of the Internet Safety Bill, which is now being discussed in the British Parliament. The Digital Services Act, passed last year by the European Union, includes stricter rules requiring corporations to remove illegal content from their websites.

Meanwhile, the U.S. surgeon general urged social media businesses to put adolescents’ health and well-being first throughout “all stages of product development” in 2021. 

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However, the scientific evidence on the effect of social media and other online activities on adolescents’ mental health needs to be more consistent, which presents a challenge for policymakers.

Small negative correlations between time spent on social media and measures of well-being have been shown in several studies, but the importance of these findings is debated among researchers. There could be a variety of causes for the inability of psychologists, psychiatrists, computational scientists, and others to clarify the situation.

There has been a request for more in-depth, objective assessments of how users spend their time online, and smartphone apps that monitor screen time are beginning to address this concern. Others argue that we need a deeper understanding of what makes a given individual susceptible to the harmful effects of social media. 

 These points of view are all reasonable. But, there is another hole in the literature: scientists have not systematically investigated the association between social media use and mental health across different stages of development using large-scale data sets or controlled studies.

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The Importance of the Developmental Stage

Social media effect on teen mental health   We analyzed two U.K. data sets of longitudinal information to gain insight into this question in 2020 and 2021. 

6. 17,409 people were interviewed or filled out online questionnaires once a year for as long as seven years regarding their social media use and level of happiness. Participants’ ages varied from 10 to 21 when the initial surveys were conducted.

To determine the long-term relationship between social media use and happiness, we compared participants’ self-reported levels of happiness one year after they estimated how much time they spent on social media when they were 10 years old, 11 years old, 12 years old, etc.

To their reported levels of happiness one year later. That is to say; we stood in for developmental stage with chronological age.

We found that social media use (the participants’ estimates of how much time they spent each weekday, on average, interacting with friends through a social website or app) predicted levels of life satisfaction a year later; however, this was only the case for participants at specific developmental stages.

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A year later, female participants who reported being 11, 12, or 13 years old when the data was collected had lower life satisfaction if they had increased their social media use (defined as increased use relative to the participant’s average use over the data-collection period).

Those who identified as male did so at the same rate when they were 14 or 15. These windows of time coincide with the ages at which adolescents experience puberty, which typically begins with females before males7.

Increased social media use at age 19 (when most young adults first experience freedom) was associated with lower life satisfaction levels for both sexes a year later.

There are several caveats that should be taken into account while analyzing these findings. The study needs to be repeated with better tools for monitoring participants’ social media use and their stage of development.

The effects of social media on mental health also appear to vary widely from one person to the next, as evidenced by the findings of these and other studies.  Finally, the effects of social media appear to be two-way and complex:

Men and women of all ages who reported a lower-than-average level of life satisfaction in any given year were more likely to increase their social media use the following year.

But, what we know about adolescence from neurocognitive studies and other research lends credence to the hypothesis that people’s sensitivity to online social contexts might be linked to particular developmental changes.

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A Period of Transition

Hormonal and physiological shifts that affect the entire body can be observed beginning in early adolescence. Changes in the brain, the mind, and society occur simultaneously.

These alterations may increase the allure of social media environments like those provided by Snapchat and TikTok and their potential negative effects on users’ mental health.

Several research in developmental psychology has found, for example, that teenagers, especially those in early to mid-adolescence, place a premium on social interaction and the approval of their peers.

While most young children have a favorable opinion of themselves, research shows that by the time they are adolescents, their self-perceptions have converged with those of others. Further research has indicated that being excluded or rejected has a stronger effect on adolescents’ moods than adults.

As a person’s brain develops and matures, they may find social media increasingly appealing.

Adolescents can now measure social acceptance in various ways, such as the number of “likes” they receive after publishing something online or the number of seconds, minutes, or hours it takes to receive feedback.

Some persons may have increased insecurities about their value or the weight of others’ opinions due to their ability to monitor comments from peers continually.

Teenagers’ sense of identity, their perception of others’ impressions of them, and their social media habits might be influenced by digital inventions like video games and social media platforms like TikTok.

There are times in adolescents’ lives when their social situations shift dramatically.

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Most children in the United Kingdom and internationally transfer to secondary schools, where their peer groups are larger and more fluid, around the ages of eleven and eighteen.

The ability to connect with peers through social media has significant implications because of the medium’s many advantageous features, including its widespread availability, high visibility, permanence, asynchronous nature, and lack of social cues like facial expressions and body language.

The same thing happens when young people depart for the workforce or higher education. Adolescents may feel greater social pressures throughout this developmental period’s early and late stages.

Filling in the Blanks

We encourage additional developmental studies into the consequences of social media use by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other behavioral scientists. Several research examining the effects of social media use do so by averaging results from participants of varying ages.

This means it’s possible to miss changes in how teenagers respond to social media as they age. Researchers typically extrapolate their findings to the entire adolescent population, even though their data comes from a narrower age range or volunteers of the same age.

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Researchers could employ developmental neuroscience or developmental psychology methods to pinpoint how the developmental stage affects how young people interact with and experience online places.

Some psychological experiments, for instance, include providing respondents with comments from made-up people so that they can track how their sense of value evolves.

Other studies assess the extent to which individuals’ self-judgments are influenced by how they believe others to judge them or whether or not participants’ opinions or actions (such as the amount they donate to charity) are influenced by the opinions or actions of their peers.

This kind of experimental paradigm, when combined with digital data sources, could shed light on how young people’s fragile sense of self is impacted by their social media usage and personal growth.

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For example, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (A.B.C.D.) study collected saliva samples to measure pubertal hormones, and self-reported questionnaires could be used to estimate the puberty stage of participants, allowing researchers to determine whether age or puberty is more important in determining sensitivity to social media.

(The A.B.C.D. research is the largest U.S. study of its kind, tracking children’s brain development and health throughout time.)

The fact that social media businesses are typically reticent to disclose their data to researchers makes it much more difficult to investigate the impact of online settings on the increase of mental health problems in young people.

Nonetheless, the effects of adolescent mental health problems persist throughout a person’s entire life:

48% of people with a mental health illness, such as depression, show signs for the first time before the age of 18 or 20. In addition, new forms of digital technology will continue to appear.

To better understand the factors that predispose some young people to depression, anxiety, self-harm, and other mental health disorders, psychologists, neuroscientists, and other researchers must maintain perfecting their methods.

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