Social Media has a ‘Tiny’ Effect on Teenagers


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Do teenagers who use social media more than average have lower life satisfaction?

The effects of social media use on teenage life satisfaction are limited and probably “tiny”, a study of 12,000 UK adolescents suggests (BBC News). Teachers up and down the country ‘look up and are baffled’ at these findings. I’ve decided to go to the source of the research and summarise for the busy classroom teacher.

The study by Oxford University, published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – a name that certainly needs a rebrand) claims to be “one of the world’s most-cited and comprehensive multidisciplinary scientific journals, publishing more than 3,200 research papers annually”.

Does social media effect teenagers?

The research paper attempts to answer the question, “Do teenagers who use social media more than average have lower life satisfaction, or whether adolescents with lower life satisfaction use more social media?”

The authors write, “Our understanding of social media effects is predominately shaped by analyses of cross-sectional associations between social media use measures and self-reported youth outcomes but many of their conclusions are problematic. It is not tenable to assume that observations of between-person associations—comparing different people at the same time point—translate into within-person effects—tracking an individual, and what affects them, over time.”

This simply means, the have analysed past research papers.

Drawing this flawed inference risks misinforming the public or shaping policy on the basis of unsuitable evidence.

To disentangle between-person associations from within-person effects, the authors analysed an eight-wave, large-scale, and nationally representative panel dataset.

How many children took part in the study?

Almost thirteen thousand 10-to-15-year-olds took part in the study.

Questions that were included, “How many hours do you spend chatting with friends through a social website?” were ranked on a five-point scale. Between-person associations asked, “Do teenagers use more social media?” and “Do they show different levels of life satisfaction with those who use SM less?”

Within-person effects of social media asked “Does a teenager using social media more than they do on average drive subsequent changes in life satisfaction?”

What do the findings say?

  • Only 16% of significant information arose from male data.
  • The median between-person relation and within-person effects appeared more negative for females.
  • The responses/effect-size was, d = -0.13.
  • The responses/effect size was, d = -0.05 social media predicting life satisfaction
  • The responses/effect size for life satisfaction predicting social media was, d = -0.02.
  • All domains of life satisfaction, except satisfaction with friends, predicted slightly reduced social media use (b = −0.17 to −0.05 or β = −0.11 to −0.07; Fig. 2, right)

Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfactionConclusions

  1. When comparing both genders, the effects’ confidence intervals overlap, and the lower incidence of significant effects in males alone is not evidence that the effects are therefore substantial in females, especially as they are very small in size.
  2. The yearly interval between measurements in these data might not be optimal for understanding reciprocal social media effects over time.
  3. No single study can capture the full causal picture.
  4. The relations linking social media use and life satisfaction are more nuanced than previously assumed.
  5. Most effects are tiny— arguably trivial; where best statistical practices are followed, they are not statistically significant in more than half of models.
  6. With the unknowns of social media effects still substantially outnumbering the knowns, some effects are worthy of further exploration.

The authors conclude, “Scientists must embrace circumspection, transparency, and robust ways of working that safeguard against bias and analytical flexibility. Doing so will provide parents and policymakers with the reliable insights they need on a topic most often characterised by unfounded media hype.”

Social media companies must support independent research by sharing granular user engagement data and participating in large-scale team-based open science. Only then will we truly unravel the complex constellations of effects shaping young people in the digital age.

You can download a copy of the paper here.

Authors: Amy Orben, Tobias Dienlinc and Andrew K. Przybylski.


3 thoughts on “Social Media has a ‘Tiny’ Effect on Teenagers

  1. Interesting study. It’s quite hard to accept that something that has such a strong impact on driving social norms could have a ‘tiny’ impact, but it’s good to have research that counteracts the hype.

  2. I think there is a lot of hysteria over mobile phone use. Negative things were said about the use of Sony walkmans and Ipods when they came out. The genie is out of the bottle and is not going back in. All schools can do is manage mobile phone use and parents too. It’s obviously not healthy to be spending every waking hour online. Balance is needed – in the dialogue about mobile devices and acceptable usage. All technology has an impact on human behaviour and habits. It’s been like this since radio and tv!

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