Author: Martha R. Villabona works at Subdirección General de Cooperación Territorial e Innovación Educativa of the Spanish Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, where she coordinates the area of multiple literacies.
The American Psychological Association (APA) states that the use of social networks is either harmful or beneficial for young people1. In most cases, the effects of social networks depend not only on the technical features and functions of social networks and digital platforms, but also on the personal and individual psychological characteristics of adolescents, as well as the social circumstances surrounding them. We recognize there is no long-term longitudinal data, here we summarize most current evidence on this matter.
To date, findings indicate that adolescents may benefit from the use of social networks when they experience stress, they wish to contact their peers, and especially when they have more difficulty relating in the physical environment face to face. Those adolescents with symptoms of social anxiety, depression or loneliness could interact positively and socialize in the digital environment. Likewise, those who need social support who are unable to find it within their family/household environment could potentially find it in the virtual space.
This is suggested by research conducted before and during the COVID-19 pandemic 2. Investigators looked at first, the impact of technology on adolescents’ social behavior before and after social distancing caused by the pandemic, and second, if these changes impacted their mental well-being.
Data were collected from 1007 adolescents from October to December 2019 (T1) and data from 968 adolescents from October to December 2020 (T2) this last cohort data was collected during full confinement. Data from 586 adolescents was included in the final analysis. These were patient’s characteristics: 53% female and 47% male. In prior studies belonging to a minority had an increased use of social network, therefore, this was an important characteristic. Self-identified belonging to an ethnic group, in our cohort there were 58% white, 15% Hispanic, 9% black, 6% Asian, 6% biracial, 3% Native American, 3% Middle Eastern individuals. Mother’s educational level (67% had a college degree), was an important feature to mention as this has been shown to be related to children’s short- and long-term health and well-being; and finally, household composition was another characteristic they looked at. In the 2019 cohort 76% were two-parent families, in the 2020 cohort there were 73% two-parent families and there were 16% single-parent families in both cohorts. Results were as it follows: there was an increase during T2 in the frequency of accessing to social networks, in using social networks before bedtime and problematic internet use. In addition, while stress, loneliness and depression increased during the pandemic, adolescents also increased coping strategies to deal with these negative indicators of well-being. Social network use also involved positive indicators, such as seeking social support online. This study concluded that the changes in well-being experienced by adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be significantly attributed to social network use, which challenges the popular belief that well-being is intrinsically linked negatively to technology use.
In another recent study, investigators explored potential novel ways developed in the digital environment that promoted pro social behaviors 3 . It is a fact that children and adolescents with high levels of prosocial behavior such as sharing or cooperating with others perform better in school, besides experiencing better emotional well-being, than those with low levels of pro social behavior. The digital environment can enhance this behavior making it possible for anyone to help others at any time and for their action to be recorded and have a greater reach than if they did it in person. On the other hand, helping others in the digital environment would imply and generate a greater social and emotional connection, improving the sense of belonging to the community and self-identity.
What about the harmful effects of social networks on youth well-being?
Family or adult supervision of children’s is essential to avoid harmful use of social networks. When it is excessive, when there is interference with daily routines or when it restricts the opportunity for face-to-face interaction it is a problematic use. Furthermore, when it affects the adolescent’s sleeping hours if there is no parental control it is also problematic. On this note, looking at current studies, if adolescents reduce their use or avoid the use of electronic devices connected to the Internet one hour before bedtime, they would have a healthier and longer sleep4.
In summary, as it is stated by the APA, the effects of social networking are likely to depend on the nature of the content what adolescents are exposed online, their individual personal characteristics, and the contexts and circumstances in which they grow up and family and adults involvement and supervision.
Media education then should be implemented to avoid or at least minimize harmful effects. If children, adolescents and families know how social networks work and their implications, it would help mitigate and reduce the risks of social networks problematic use. Having educated families and households will contribute positively to children’s emotional well-being.
- American Psychological Association (2023). Health Advisory On Social Media Use In Adolescence. ↩
- Charmaraman, L., Lynch, A. D., Richer, A. M., & Zhai, E. (2022). Examining Early Adolescent Positive and Negative Social Technology Behaviors and Well-Being During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 3(1: Spring 2022). doi: 10.1037/tmb0000062 ↩
- Armstrong-Carter, E., & Telzer, E. H. (2021). Advancing measurement and research on youths’ prosocial behavior in the digital age. Child Development Perspectives, 15(1), 31–36. doi:10.1111/cdep.12396 ↩
- Perrault, A., Bayer, L., Peuvrier, M., Afyouni, A. et al. (2019). Reducing the use of screen electronic devices in the evening is associated with improved sleep and daytime vigilance in adolescents. Sleep, 42 (9). doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsz125 ↩