Time spent on social media has only a “trivial” impact on life satisfaction among adolescents, say researchers.
The team behind a new study say time spent on social media has only a small negative effect on how happy boys and girls feel about life, and that only girls reduced their use of social media as a result of feeling discontented.
While the team found the effects of time spent on social media do appear to be wider-ranging for girls than boys, they said even then the effects remain tiny.
According to Prof Andy Przybylski, coauthor of the research from Oxford University, “99.75% of a young person’s life satisfaction across a year has nothing to do with whether they are using more or less social media”.
Przybylski said the study adds to the evidence that it is not how much time children spend on social media that is important when it comes to wellbeing, saying that the focus on time “is like somebody crying wolf”. Instead, he said, there are other, more nuanced, questions that should be asked.
“It is entirely possible that there are other, specific, aspects of social media that are really not good for kids … or that there are some young people who are more or less vulnerable because of some background factor,” he said.
The team said parents should stop worrying about how long their children spend on platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat, and instead talk to them about their experiences.
“Just as things went awry offline, things will also go awry online, and it is really important for that communication channel to be open,” said Amy Orben, first author of the research, also from Oxford University.
The potential impact of social media and screen time on young people has fuelled much debate, with some studies and surveys suggesting it could be taking a toll on children’s mental health. Others have said it has positive effects, including helping young people to socialise and find support.
But the team behind the latest research said many previous studies have only looked at whether children who reported using more social media had worse feelings about life at that point in time.
In other words, the studies compared data between different children, and did not unpick whether social media use was actually driving negative feelings or vice versa.
The upshot, the team said, is that questions remained about whether increasing the amount of time a young person spends on social media would affect how they later feel about life.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team reported how they analysed UK data collected in a previous survey between 2009 and 2016, involving more than 12,500 adolescents aged 10-15.
The team carried out more than 2,000 different analyses to look at the data in slightly different ways, in order to probe the impact of taking into account a variety of factors including aspects of the children’s home life.
The results show that for a large proportion of the analyses, there was no significant link between life satisfaction and time spent on social media, whether comparing between different children or looking at effects over time within individual children.
The team said that is important, as it shows that the same set of data can throw up different results simply depending on how it is analysed.
When the team took an average across all the analyses, they found children who spent longer on social media were only slightly more likely to say they were dissatisfied with life.
Even smaller effects were seen when they took the average across the analyses and looked at the impact of increases in a young person’s social media use on their life satisfaction and vice versa.
“Changes in an adolescent’s media use can explain only 0.25% of changes in their life satisfaction one year later,” said Orben. “Vice versa, fluctuations in their life satisfaction can only explain 0.04% of changes in their social media use one year later, which is a tiny effect as well,” she added.
To examine differences between boys and girls, the team focused on particular analyses they said were the most robust.
The results show the effects of increasing social media use were wider-ranging in girls than boys, not only slightly reducing satisfaction with life, but also satisfaction with school life, school work, friends and family – although not appearance.
Only in girls did being less satisfied about some aspects of life lead to a slight reduction in social media use. But again, the team said, the effects were very small, and noted girls might just be better at reporting how they feel.
However, the study has limitations, including that it is based on self-reported time on social media. The team also stated they could not examine what exactly the children were doing on social media, or which platforms they were using.
Prof Liz Twigg from Portsmouth University, who is currently leading a large-scale study of the impact of social media on children, welcomed the study.
“As the authors themselves recognise, no study like this provides definitive evidence, but this one certainly provides compelling evidence,” she said.
“In population terms, social media use may not be the source of harm for children’s mental health that we often think.”