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  • Peter Gray Ph.D.

Benefits and Challenges of Social Media Use for Teens

What do teens themselves say they gain from social media?

Houston Social Media Teens Therapy


This is the second of two posts devoted to the contentious issue of social media use by teens. Some researchers have reported negative correlations between social media use and indices of mental health in teens, especially for girls, and this has led some to propose that teens should be restricted from social media. Such reports motivated me to spend many hours delving into the research literature relevant to questions of social media and teen mental health.


In my last post I focused on reviews of studies aimed at determining whether there is an overall correlation between time spent on social media and indices of mental health in teens. The general finding, supported by essentially all the reviews, is that, taken as a whole, research suggests a very small negative correlation between social media use and teens’ mental well-being. Reviewer after reviewer, however, points out that the effect is too small—for either boys or girls or both combined—to account for a meaningful portion of the variance among teens in mental well-being.


Moreover, researchers regularly point out that whatever negative correlations are found could be the result of depression or anxiety causing increased use of social media (perhaps as a way of coping with distress) rather than the reverse. I also, in that post, reviewed attempts to determine the direction of causation of such correlations through longitudinal studies and experiments and concluded that no studies to date provide compelling evidence that social media use causes a reduction in teens’ mental well-being.


In today’s post my focus is on what teens themselves say about their use of social media and on studies that look at the immediate effects of social media use on teens’ moods. Why do teens spend so much time on social media? What do they get out of it? What do they see as the positive and negative effects it has on their mental health? What individual differences exist among teens in the mental health consequences of social media use? And, finally, what precautions might teens (and the rest of us) take to use social media safely and reduce or remove risks?


Houston Social Media Use for Teens Therapy


Why Do Teens Spend So Much Time on Social Media?

Teenagers have always been attracted to public spaces where they can hang out with friends, find new friends, and talk endlessly with peers about matters that concern them, away from parents and other authority figures. This has always been true, across cultures and across time. It seems to be an essential part of growing up.


In recent decades, however, teens, as well as younger children, have been increasingly deprived of opportunities to get together in physical space away from direct adult surveillance and interference. Increasingly, their time is taken up with adult-directed activities and their freedom to join peers away from adults outside the home is restricted by fearful parents and, increasingly, by security guards at places such as shopping malls where teens gathered in decades past. (I described forces that have led to such changes here.)


Under these conditions, social media is a saving grace. It provides a substitute means for teens to keep in touch with one another. Through their smartphones they can share their thoughts and feelings even when not allowed to gather physically, and they can do so during free moments even when they are kept busy with adult-directed activities. Cyberspace is the new public space for teens. If we took that away from them, they would have no space—no way to engage in the intense and private (private from adults) communication that teens have always sought and needed as part of growing up.


The first thorough study I’ve found of why teens use social media so much was conducted by danah boyd (who spells her name without capitals) rather early in the social media era, a bit more than a decade ago, and published as a book (boyd, 2014). She interviewed 166 teens across the country and across ethnic groups. When she asked why they used social media so much, the regular answer she received was to keep in touch with friends. When she asked why they didn’t get together with their friends in person rather than over the Internet, they regularly told her they would much rather get together in person but had little opportunity to do so because of restrictions on their and their friends’ time and freedom.


Teens also told her that it was important to them to keep their communications with peers away from the prying eyes and ears of parents and other authority figures. In boyd’s words, “They want the right to be ignored by the people they see as being ‘in their business.’… They wish to avoid paternalistic adults who use safety and protection as an excuse to monitor their everyday sociality.” Further, boyd wrote, “In 2012, when I asked teens who were early adopters of Twitter, Tumbler, and Instagram why they prefer these services to Facebook, I heard a near-uniform response: ‘Because my parents don’t know about it.”


In more recent studies, teens continue to say they use social media primarily to keep in touch with friends. In a study by the Pew Research Center (Anderson & Jiang, 2018), researchers asked 743 teens, ages 13 to 17, why they use social media instead of getting together with friends in person. The most common response (by 41%) was that they had too many obligations (too many scheduled activities) to find time to hang out with friends. In addition, 34% said their friends were too busy with their own obligations, 32% cited the difficulty of finding transportation, and 33% noted that it is just easier to connect with friends online than to try to connect with them physically.



Houston Social Media Use for Teens In Person Therapy

Houston Social Media Use for Teens Online Therapy


What Do Teens Consider to Be the Pluses and Minuses of Social Media Use?

A large recent study by the nonprofit organization Common Sense (Nesi, Mann, & Robb, 2023) focused specifically on girls ages 11 to 15, because this is the demographic considered by some to be the most vulnerable to possible negative effects of social media. The survey included more than 1,300 girls.


In one set of questions the girls were asked whether the effect on their mood of using various social media platforms was primarily positive, negative, or neutral. For every platform, more girls said the effect was positive than negative. For TikTok, 43% said positive, 26% negative, and the rest neutral. For Instagram, these numbers were 38% positive, 19% negative; for Snapchat. 32% positive, 26% negative; for messaging apps 50% positive, 10% negative; and for YouTube, 65% positive, 5% negative.


In another set of questions, the girls were asked if their life would be better, worse, or the same if they didn’t have access to specific social media platforms. For each platform, far more said that removing the platform would make their life worse than said it would make it better, though many said it would make no difference. For example, only 9% said life would be better without messaging apps, while 43% said life would be worse. For TikTok, 16% said life would be better without it, while 34% said worse.


So, all in all, girls using social media are much more likely to feel it is good for their well-being than to feel it is harmful.


Why, according to teens, does social media improve their well-being? In the Pew study (Anderson & Jiang, 2018), cited earlier, 81% of teens said social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, and roughly two-thirds said such communication makes them feel they have people who will support them through tough times. In line with that, 71% said social media makes them feel included, compared to 25% saying it makes them feel excluded, and 69% said it makes them feel confident, compared to 26% saying it makes them feel insecure. All this is consistent with the idea that teens gain social support through social media.


On the possibly negative side, in the Pew study, many said they at least sometimes feel pressure to post only content that makes them look good (43%) or will get lots of likes or comments (37%). Moreover, 45% said they at least sometimes feel overwhelmed by the drama, and many in that group said they had digitally disconnected from some others because of too much drama.


The Pew researchers also analyzed their data separately for boys and girls and for each age group (ages 13 to 17) and found no large differences. They concluded that boys and girls and older and younger teens generally view their social media use in similar ways. They also found that teens at the time of their study rarely posted “selfies,” unlike teens of a decade or more earlier. The decline in posting of selfies may help explain why recent studies have revealed less anxiety among teens about their physical appearance, deriving from social media, than may have been true in the past.


Houston Social Media Use for Teens Therapy

Experience Sampling Studies of Effects of Social Media on Mood

One approach to understanding short-term effects of social media use on teens’ moods is to signal them at various times and, at each signal, have them report on their use of social media within some period (typically an hour) before the signal and their current mood.


In one such study, Ine Beyens and colleagues (2020) tested the hypothesis that passive social media use (where the person is just browsing and not posting) may have negative effects on mood. This hypothesis is generally founded on the belief that when one is just looking at others posts they feel socially excluded and envious of the others’ experiences.


The results failed to support that hypothesis. In fact, the researchers found that 46% of the teens tested over many such sampling trials felt better, on average, after such browsing and only 10% felt worse. The rest, on average, felt neither better nor worse. A very similar finding has since been reported in another study (Valkenburg et al., 2021)—which also showed that only a small percentage of teens felt worse after passive browsing; most either felt better or were unaffected. Beyens and colleagues also found, as had others, that active use of social media—that is, sending messages, posting or sharing on social media—regularly produced a boost in teens’ feelings of well-being.


In another study, Jessica Hamilton and her colleagues (2021) tested the hypothesis that teens who are depressed and have had suicidal thoughts may be at particular risk for harmful effects of social media. They conducted their study with 100 teens who were enrolled in an intensive outpatient program for depression and suicidality. At weekly visits to the clinic, over the course of a month, the teens reported on their use of social media over the past week and were assessed with measures of depression and suicidal ideation. The results were the opposite of what some might predict. Those who used social media more showed greater improvement in mental health—less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts—than those who used it less or not at all. The researchers concluded that “among adolescents who are at high risk for suicide, social media may be indicative of adaptive or healthy social engagement.”


In another longitudinal study, Stephanie Fredrick and colleagues (2022) sampled social media use and depression at four time points over two years for 800 teens who were 13 to 15 years old at the start of the study. The findings were complex, but one finding that stood out was that for girls, more than for boys, higher levels of active social media use predicted lower levels of depression. This finding runs counter to the belief that social media is especially bad for girls. In this study it seemed to be especially good for girls.


Sensible Advice for Social Media Use

All in all, the research indicates that teens today gain much more than they lose through social media. Cyberspace may not be as great a place to hang with friends as physical space, but in a world that makes it very difficult for teens to get together physically, social media is much better than nothing. Teens themselves say they would be worse off psychologically without social media, and to me it seems obvious they are right. We must strive to change the world in ways that enable teens to get together physically much more than they currently can, but, for now, taking social media away from them would be cruel.


Yet, as teens themselves admit, there can be downsides to social media use. It would not be a bad idea, I think, for all teens—and adults too!—to take a short course on safe use of social media. I’m not the expert to design such a course, but here are some thoughts that come to mind about precautions.


Time management

Teens regularly admit, when questioned, that they sometimes spend more time with social media than they would like. They acknowledge being drawn into it and becoming so engrossed that they lose track of time, which may cause harm by subtracting from the time they can spend on other activities.


A problem is that the smartphone is always with us (I’m including all of us, not just teens), regularly alerting us that some interesting message may be coming through, and once we get involved with any given message it may be hard to leave. This is what leads some to use the word “addiction” to describe the result, but I hate that word in this context. It implies pathology rather than something quite normal.


We all (and especially teens) like to communicate with others, and we are all quite naturally curious about what might lie in that next message. I (like boyd) much prefer to call it a time-management problem. “Addiction” sounds like something that would be hard to cure, but “time management” sounds like something we should all be able to handle if we wish. Spending lots of time on social media is not in itself bad, but it may take away from time that would be better spent on other endeavors.


It would be useful for most of us, teens included, to put some breaks on our smartphone use. Choose deliberately times of day when the phone will be on and when it will be off. For starters, off at dinner time—off for everyone at dinner, not just the kids—so the family can be together and communicate in person. Similarly, when you really are together with friends, outside the family, turn the phone off so you can be fully present with your friends, not distracted by the phone.


And then off at bedtime. In fact, keep it in another room at bedtime. One of the worst effects of smartphone use is sleep loss when teens (or any of us) use it late into the night or let its beeping wake us.


Beyond that, there may be other times when we want the phone off. I turn mine off whenever I’m writing something I value because I hate interruption. Each person can decide for themselves what activities are important enough to them that they don’t want to be interrupted, and the phone can be turned off at those times. Teens might worry that their friends will think they don’t care about them if they don’t respond immediately to a message, but that can be remedied by a message to all friends saying something like this: “Please know there are times when I keep my phone turned off. If you send a message then, I will respond later. If you want an immediate response, message me between the hours of ­­___ and ___, when I will most likely have my phone on.”


Cyberbullying and drama

In her interviews with teens, boyd found that they did not think bullying online was as big a problem as adults considered it to be. They felt that bullying in person, at school, was a bigger problem. Online you can just turn the bully off, which is not so easy when a bully confronts you in a hallway at school. It’s good to remember this. If someone is really bothering you online, ignore them. Spend time with friends, not with bullies. You have nothing to gain by engaging them.


Boyd also found, however, that much of what adults call bullying is not really bullying. Some of it is a sort of verbal horseplay, which may be crude and insulting; and some of it may be exaggerated, even histrionic complaints, which the kids refer to as drama. Some teens enjoy such horseplay or drama and deliberately produce or provoke it, and some don’t. The best advice for those who don’t is to disengage from those who provoke it, which, according to the Pew study, is exactly what many teens do.


Privacy

Boyd and others have noted that teens use social media partly to keep their communications with one another private, away from parents and other adults who may (usually with good intentions) interfere in their lives. However, they sometimes forget that what they send out on the Internet to a friend might, in some way, get out more publicly. It is good to distinguish between public and private platforms, but keep in mind that even messages in private platforms can make their way out publicly. A good rule to keep in mind is don’t send anything into the Internet that you wouldn’t want a future potential employer to see.


Houston Social Media Use for Teens Therapy

Concluding Thoughts

Throughout history, with every new form of communication—from the written word, to the printed page, to radio, to television, to computers, to the internet—we go through a certain amount of growing pains. The new generation tends to glom on to the new and the older generation is suspicious and thinks it will be the ruination of the next generation. Let’s try to avoid that. Let’s listen to the kids and not judge them based on our prejudices.


Some adults are appalled by the amount of time kids spend with other kids on social media, but, as one group of evolutionary thinkers have pointed out (Katiyar et al., 2023), kids in the past regularly spent many hours every day—often all day--hanging out with other kids. They’re still doing that, but now because of our restrictions they do it on social media rather than in person.


Well, that’s it. I’m done writing about social media unless there are a bunch of questions you want me to address. In my next post I plan to expand on the idea I introduced here, that the sharp increase in anxiety, depression, and suicides in teens since about 2008 is caused in large part by increased pressure for academic performance and increased fears about their future. Keep tuned.


As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions. Psychology Today does not allow comments, so I have posted this on a different platform where you can comment. I invite you to comment here.


References


Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2018). Teens’ Social Media Habits and Experiences Pew Research Center, November, 2018.


Beyens, I., et al., (2020). The effect of social media on well‐being differs from adolescent to adolescent. Nature Research Scientific Reports.


Peter Gray, Ph.D., - Website -


boyd, d.(2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.

Hamilton, J.L. et al. (2021). Social media use and prospective suicidal thoughts and behaviors among adolescents at high risk for suicide. Suicide Life Threat Behav. 51, 1203–1212.


Nesi, J., Mann, S., & Robb, M. (2023). Teens and mental health: How girls really feel about social media. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense.


Katiyar, T., et al. (2023). An antidote to over pathologizing computer-mediated communication: An evolutionary perspective on mixed effects of mismatch.


Valkenburg, P.M., et al, (2021). Social media browsing and adolescent well-being: challenging the “passive social media use hypothesis.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 00, 1–19.





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