The social media kids are alright

Parents through the ages have always worried about their kids and what they get up to. Which is only natural. Even Plato grumbled that Athenian ne’er-do-wells were an unruly, disrespectful lot. The nature of perceived problems with “the youth of today” changes – from frivolous novels in the 18th century, to comic books, television, rock’n’roll and video games – but the mindset is the same. Some newfangled notion or technology is sending the young folk to hell in a handbasket.

The big bogey-man for contemporary parents is social media and “screen time”. But are our worries as unfounded as 60s parents barking that sitting too close to the telly would ruin our eyes?

The effects of social media use on teenage life satisfaction are limited and probably “tiny”, a study of 12,000 UK adolescents suggests.

Family, friends and school life all had a greater impact on wellbeing, says the University of Oxford research team.

The primary question asked by the study was Do adolescents using more social media show different levels of life satisfaction compared with adolescents using less? The results suggest that there is no difference between the two.

Prof Andrew Przybylski and Amy Orben, from the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford […] concluded that most links between life satisfaction and social media use were “trivial”, accounting for less than 1% of a teenager’s wellbeing – and that the effect of social media was “not a one-way street”.

Prof Przybylski, director of research at the institute, said: “99.75% of a person’s life satisfaction has nothing to do with their use of social media.”

Perhaps the most significant result was that there appeared to be an important difference between the two genders. Although the difference was small, it seems that social media use negatively affects females more than males, hinting that gender was playing an underexplored role in the influence of social media.

Although not discussed by the authors of the study, one possible explanation for the difference might lie in the difference in interpersonal relations between boys and girls. Girls generally tend to prefer verbal communication – words. Anyone who has witnessed girls’ whisper campaigns and note-passing could well suspect how social media affects girls more negatively than boys.

But people may ask: if not social media, then what is making young people so miserable? After all, it’s a conventional wisdom that the “youth of today” are blighted by mental ill-health, misery and suicide.

Or are they?

Gallup data shows that life satisfaction has risen markedly since the 80s. Despite a recent uptick, youth suicide has declined from a mid-90s high, although there, too, there is a significant gender gap: male suicide rates far outstrip female. Which, if anything, contradicts the results from this social media use study, reinforcing the notion that worries about the influence of social media on wellbeing are misguided.

Less-easy-to-blame factors might need to be considered: rising youth unemployment, or the fact that the childcare generation is coming of age.

All of this result suggests that further research is warranted – and that the social media giants who trade in our personal data need to start sharing some of their own secrets.

The researchers said it was now important to identify young people at greater risk from certain effects of social media, and find out other factors that were having an impact on their wellbeing.

They plan to meet social media companies soon to discuss how they can work together to learn more about how people use apps – not just the time spent on them.

Ms Orben, co-study author and psychology lecturer at University of Oxford, said the industry must release their usage data and support independent research.]