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Is social media as bad for teens as we thought it was?

Contrary to previous data, some researchers are finding that smartphone use among teens might affect them less than we originally thought

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The TikTok app logo.

The TikTok app logo appears in Tokyo on Sept. 28, 2020. Since the development of social media, studies have been done that show the drawbacks of its use among young people. However, some researchers have found that previous studies have taken too broad of an approach on the subject.

Kiichiro Sato, Associated Press

Since the development of social media, studies have been done that show the drawbacks of its use among young people.

However, some researchers have found that previous studies have taken too broad of an approach on the subject.

One study found that “the risk of harm for most teenagers is tiny — about the equivalent influence on well-being as wearing eyeglasses or regularly eating potatoes,” according to The New York Times.

So, is social media use good for teens? Or does it present more issues for young adults than we think?

Is social media hurting our teens?

Frequent smartphone use in young children and teens has been linked to a wide range of mental and even physical health issues.

“The more time teens spend looking at their screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression,” reported The Atlantic.

Studies have shown that teens report higher dissatisfaction with their lives after spending time on social media. The Atlantic describes some teenagers referring to their phones as an “addiction,” claiming usage of the devices interferes with their sleep schedule.

But there are apparent physical reactions, too. A study published last year by the International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society revealed that tic-like behaviors in young women increased significantly during the pandemic. The study stated that “some medical centers are seeing as much as 10 times their usual case of tics. Before the pandemic, centers would see one or two cases a month, but now some say they’re seeing between 10 or 20 a month,” according to Business Insider’s reporting on the study.

What do these cases have in common? TikTok. Doctors reported that many of the recent patients who reported tics had been watching TikTok videos of people who said they had Tourette syndrome, reported Business Insider. A German doctor discovered that these patients seemed to be mimicking the tics of a well-known German content creator who shares online how she lives with Tourette syndrome.

Social media and mental health

Bryn Austin, an eating disorder expert and professor at Harvard, said that social media can have very harmful effects on the mental health of teens.

“From experimental research, we know that Instagram, with its algorithmically-driven fields of content tailored to each user’s engagement patterns, can draw vulnerable teens into a dangerous spiral of negative social comparison and hook them onto unrealistic ideals of appearance and body size and shape,” said Austin.

On the other hand, Michaeline Jensen, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, theorizes that social media may be a coping mechanism, rather than the direct cause of mental health issues in teens.

“Very few of these kids would be going from normal functioning to clinical levels of depression,” said Jensen, according to The New York Times.

Keysha Leonidas is 20 years old and lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. Being only 10 years old when first having access to the internet, she spoke about her experience on social media as a Black woman. “My self-esteem was definitely greatly affected. I was already not wanted at school being a Black girl, but the internet took it even further,” Leonidas told the Deseret News.

“Those places simply weren’t made for little Black girls. All you saw was rich, thin, blond, white girls. And even beauty standard aside, it was still awful. ... From the music I listened to, to the forums and content I searched, having unsupervised internet access absolutely sped up my development.”

As she’s gotten older, Leonidas states that even in her adult years, she feels affected by social media use. “I’ve grown, and I’m closer to having a fully developed frontal lobe, and I’m way less affected now by what I find on social media. Yet I still find myself being insecure occasionally,” she said. “Imagine being a young, gullible and vulnerable teen with no media literacy.”

At what ages is social media the worst for mental health?

A study published in Nature Communications — which surveyed more than 84,000 people of all ages in Britain — looked at how age can factor into the way social media impacts teens. The research displayed two periods of adolescence when social media use led to lower levels of “life satisfaction.”

The first period of low life satisfaction correlated with social media use was around puberty, ages 11 to 13 for girls and 14 to 15 for boys. Both sexes again experienced feelings of dissatisfaction around age 19.

“We actually considered that the links between social media and well-being might be different across different ages — and found that that is indeed the case,” said Amy Orben, who led the study, to The New York Times.

The trouble with social media research

Social media research isn’t always perfect, though. Jeff Hancock, a behavioral psychologist at Stanford University, conducted a meta-analysis of 226 studies relating to mental health and social media usage. Hancock told The New York Times that many of these studies lump all adolescents into one big group.

“The adolescent years are not like some constant period of developmental life — they bring rapid changes,” said Hancock to The New York Times.

The New York Times reported that using social media in place of other social activities has indirectly affected the happiness of many. “Still, research looking for a direct relationship between social media and well-being has not found much.”

Another study published in Nature Human Behavior found that many studies on social media use have been too wide scale, offering “analytical flexibility that marks small effects as statistically significant, thereby leading to potential false positives and conflicting results.”

“The association we find between digital technology use and adolescent well-being is negative, but small, explaining at most 0.4% variation in well-being,” the study reads. “Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change.”

Is social media really all that bad?

While there is a plethora of research on the drawbacks of social media, some researchers are finding that social media has benefitted the lives of teens in some ways. “Although the negative effects of social media tend to get more attention, is is important to consider the positive effects and uses to encourage a healthy relationship between adolescents and social media,” according to a meta-analysis of several social media studies that was published in a nursing journal.

The research continues to state that “adolescents who lack social skills may experience improvement in self-esteem and well-being as a result of positive feedback from social media connections.” The same meta-analysis reports some young people are finding identity confirmation and communities through social media use that they might not have been exposed to in their daily lives if it weren’t for social media.

Other researchers studied teens over a one year period to see how social media affected their empathy. “Social media was positively correlated to affective empathy and cognitive empathy, but not to sympathy,” The study also found that girls used social media more often than boys, leading them to score higher than boys on an empathy scale.

Ezra Johnson, a 21 year-old student living in Fargo, North Dakota, has been using social media since she was 9. She told Deseret News that social media has offered her perspectives on life that she would have otherwise never come into contact with growing up in small-town North Dakota.

“I think it’s helped me become a more open thinker since you are exposed to people from all over the world. Their cultures, opinions, beliefs, etc. It showed me the unfiltered truths of the world,” said Johnson.