Social Media And Children
25 May 2019
Social media - maybe it’s not the bogeyman
More time on social media gets a bad press. Sinking too-many hours into social has been linked to religious and political radicalisation, body image issues, mental health problems, sleeplessness and even obesity.
But time spent on social media has, according to new Oxford University research, only a “trivial” impact on adolescents’ overall happiness.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the survey – which involved 2000 different analyses, seven years of data and a sample of more than 12,500 UK youngsters – found “no significant link between life satisfaction and time spent on social media”.
This research runs the risk of being filed away as just another social media survey, but these findings are hugely important. More on that in a sec.
This latest piece flies in the face of much public opinion. No-one’s saying ‘too much’ social media is a positive, but every week it seems a negative headline drops.
A 2019 study into adolescent sleep habits by the University of Glasgow found that youngsters who sink three hours or more per day into social media were most likely to get to sleep late. A poor sleep life, the report reminded us, put teens at risk of poorer academic and emotional outcomes as well as obesity and a range of mental health problems.
Earlier this year, The Prince's Trust reported that twice as many young people (18%) than a decade ago believe that life isn't worth living. And that assertion was heavily linked to “overwhelming pressure” as a result of heavy social media use.
With girls spending more time on social media, UK charity Girlguiding found that the quest to create the image of a “perfect” life online is affecting the wellbeing of one in three girls.
On the back of such headlines, public pressure has mounted on the government to toughen up. UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds said that social media companies have a “moral duty” to act and even announced that children need lessons in social media.
No one's here to give Facebook et al an easy ride. Algorithms and content are designed to keep users on-site longer, mostly in the name of data collection. The company has used - or at least facilitated - underhand tactics and off-colour content in a bid to keep people on. Accusations of fake news, a lack of moderation and high-profile data scandals, notably the Cambridge Analytica affair a year ago, have dented people’s confidence.
When explaining dips in youngsters' mental health and wellbeing, it’s easy to see them spending more and more and more time on social media - and make the connection.
What makes this new Oxford University research valuable is the extent of the team's data analysis. Instead of asking children to self-report their own associations between social media and life, or comparing social media data between different sets and arriving at comparative conclusions (girls this boys that, or vulnerable groups this mainstream groups that), this study sought to understand what exactly drives negative feelings overall across a considerable time period.
Scrutinising existing data, the Oxford team described the "lacklustre" correlations underneath recent scary social media headlines.
This project found that if social media is the centrepoint in an adolescent happiness study then it doesn't come off well. If the centrepoint is life itself, social media looks much more incidental.
In comparisons between different children, as well as tracking the same child over time, data shows that time spent on social is of little consequence on happiness.
According to Prof Andy Przybylski, coauthor of the research, “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”.
What does it all mean?
To date, a classic 'chicken and egg' debate surrounds social media. Does it kickstart problems in people or do people with problems simply go there. The one place where near-consensus has been reached is that ‘too much’ social media is detrimental.
When it comes to overall happiness (not counting the physical ill-effects of too much computer time) this survey dents that assertion.
No one's suggesting kids should spend more time on social media. Parental moderation and monitoring will always be crucial - bad things happen on social media just as they do in real-life.
But if the Oxford Research prompts anything, it's that social media may not be the bogeyman. On a long enough timeline, our kids' happiness and unhappiness fluctuates regardless of how much time they spend on it.
As ever the cause of or solution to unhappiness isn’t about what people read or see, but how they feel. And how freely, openly and effectively they can talk about it in real life - as well as online.