Social media use can affect adolescents’ well-being and mental health in different ways. On the one hand, social media can promote interaction with peers with similar interests, facilitate communication and information on sensitive topics, and can be a vehicle of collaboration and involvement with the community. On the other hand, it can also facilitate the sourcing and transmission of harmful content, such as the spreading of cyber bullying and peer pressure, which can affect sleep patterns, perception of body image, and ultimately can result in increased stress and anxiety.
The evidence on the possible causal relationship between social media exposure and adolescents’ well-being is scarce, and most of the existing literature uses cross-sectional data, without considering the importance of unobserved individual characteristics. In other words, there could be other factors at play, such as personality traits, attitudes, or family values, which affect both social media use and mental health. Also, cross-sectional descriptive studies do not consider the risk of reverse causality (i.e., young people may be going online because they have low levels of well-being, not vice versa).
To tackle these methodological issues, a recent IZA discussion paper by Paul McNamee, Silvia Mendolia, and Oleg Yerokhin uses data from Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study. The authors compare children aged 10 to 15 who spend long hours on social media with children who have very similar observable characteristics (including child’s age, ethnic group, and gender; mother’s mental health, education, labor market activity and marital status; family income, region of residence and urbanization), but do not spend long hours on social media. Through various econometric techniques they minimize the risk that potential confounders may affect their modeling.
Not social media per se, but high intensity of use is harmful
The results show that prolonged use of social media (more than four hours per day) is significantly associated with poorer emotional health and more behavioral difficulties, and in particular decreased perception of self-value and increased incidence of hyperactivity, inattention and conduct problems. These effects are found especially for girls and regardless of family’s socio-economic status. However, limited use of social media (less than three hours per day) has some positive effect on peer relationships.
In the light of these findings, the authors suggest that parent and teachers should not stigmatize social media use as a completely negative phenomenon, but rather highlight the possible risks of prolonged social media use at the expense of other socializing activities.