What do adolescents say about social media and well-being?
If you’ve watched the news or read a newspaper in the last few years, you may have noticed stories about the negative impact of social media on young people’s mental health and well-being. I wondered, what does research tell us about this important issue?
The first thing I found, was that very little research included the views and experiences of young people! Given the ubiquity of social media and well-being in everyday life, taken with the disagreements regarding the quality of evidence supporting any proposed relationships (Odgers et al., 2020) this gap came as somewhat of a surprise.
Qualitative research that includes the views and experiences of adolescents about social media and well-being has the potential to offer rich, nuanced insights which are vital to understanding any such relationships. With that in mind, we set out to provide the first systematic review and thematic synthesis of this type of research.
We identified 19 studies from seven different countries that spoke to young people aged 11-19 years old. So what stood out?
Online connections can support and hinder well-being
For many adolescents, staying connected to friends, family, and like-minded people over social media can be a source of support and well-being. Making these connections may even contribute to the developmental process of ‘individuation’ during adolescence.
Unlike real-world social connections, however, social media can easily support more hostile social contexts in unique ways. Many teens highlighted user anonymity, the greater possibility for miscommunication and misunderstanding, and the experience of peer evaluation (e.g. collecting ‘likes’) as potentially harmful to well-being.
Adolescent development may make connecting to others on social media riskier for teens than others. Research tells us that neurological developments during adolescence can lead to increased risk-taking and impulsivity, as well as to increased sensitivity to rewards (Griffin, 2017), which may increase the importance of receiving likes and views.
Social media is a place for identity work
Teenagers often spoke about the ways social media helped them to be their “authentic self” or “come out of their shell”. Self-expression, building a positive self-image, being distinctive, and even keeping track of development through a digital footprint are all actions that theoretically can support identity development and well-being. Despite these potential benefits, these avenues for expression also risked increased self-censorship and regretful behaviour for many teens.
From an emotional well-being perspective, we could say that the gap between a publicly posted ‘aspirational’ identity (think glamorous Instagram filters) and the internally felt one can lead to low mood and low self-worth (Rogers, 1961). While learning to negotiate such experiences has always represented a complex emotional challenge for adolescents, this process is likely to be intensified on social media.
Social media is an emotional rollercoaster
As adolescence is often characterised by an increased occurrence, range, and intensity of emotional encounters, it was perhaps unsurprising that teenager’s accounts of emotional experiences on social media featured in almost all of the studies we found.
For some, social media helped elicit positive emotions, such as feeling happy, engaged, and offering a temporary escape from reality. Other teenagers gave sharply contrasting accounts. They described how social media could feel like a surveillance culture, in which they worried about missing out on social news or events, or worse still, becoming the topic of social news. Others spoke about stressful pressure to connect to others and respond to messages which could lead to loss of important rest.
While emotional stimulation can provide developmental opportunities, it also can increase vulnerability to adaptational difficulties, relevant to well-being. This is particularly important to adolescents, as their ability to regulate (or manage) emotions are in the process of developing during this time.
Pros and cons in the classroom
Learning is an established marker of well-being, particularly for young people. Several adolescents explained how social media in school provided access to information that allowed them to explore subjects and spark interest in new ones. Equally, adolescents also described how social media could dominate discussions and intrude into learning environments. These accounts appeared to relate to the concept of an “attention economy” whereby fast flow of eye-catching and distracting information on social media competes for attention with deeper styles of attention are required for complex problems.
What needs to happen next?
We hope that the accounts and themes captured in our review may lead to more theoretically based and developmentally informed research. Young people are capable of providing rich, informative, and relevant accounts of the interactions between ever-evolving social media and well-being. Their views are rarely sought.
By encouraging adolescents to talk about aspects of well-being in a way that makes sense to them, and paying attention to issues such as age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and culture, researchers will likely increase the validity of any future findings. This may perhaps allow for a more balanced, nuanced understanding of this important topic.
Griffin, A. (2017). Adolescent neurological development and implications for health and well-being. Healthcare, 5, 62–76. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare5040062.
Odgers, C. L., Schueller, S. M., & Ito, M. (2020). Screen time, social media use, and adolescent development. Annual Review of Developmental Psychology, 2(1), 485–502. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-devpsych-121318-084815
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin
Shankleman, M., Hammond, L., & Jones, F. W. (2021). Adolescent Social Media Use and Well-Being: A Systematic Review and Thematic Meta-synthesis. Adolescent Research Review, 1-22. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40894-021-00154-5