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Impact of social media on adolescents’ mental wellbeing varies by age – study

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Scientists say that boys and girls could be more vulnerable to social media’s adverse effects at different times during adolescence.

A team at Cambridge University found that boys are more likely to suffer a negative link between social media use and life satisfaction when they are 14-15, whereas for girls it is more likely to be a year or so earlier.

Increased social media use, say the researchers, also predicts ‘lower life satisfaction’ at the age of 19.

The study was led by Dr Amy Orben, in the university’s MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, and it says that in the past 10 years, social media has fundamentally altered how we, as a society, spend our time, share personal information and talk to others. This has resulted in concerns about social media’s negative impact on individuals and the wider community.

Yet there remains a lot of grey areas and uncertainty about the use of social media relates to our mental health and wellbeing, adds the study, which was published in Nature Communications, a peer-reviewed and well regarded academic journal.

‘Concerns about social media’s negative impact’

The team, which includes psychologists, neuroscientists and modellers, also involved the University of Oxford and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. They analysed two UK datasets from around 84,000 individuals aged between 10 and 80 years. These included longitudinal data, which is data that tracks individuals over a period of time, on 17,400 young people aged 10-21 years.

In looking for a noticeable connection between estimated social media use and reported life satisfaction, they found key periods of adolescence where social media use was associated with a decrease in life satisfaction 12 months later. In the opposite direction, researchers also discovered that teenagers who have lower than average life satisfaction use more social media one year later.

In girls, social media use between the ages of 11 and 13 years was associated with a decrease in life satisfaction one year later, whereas in boys this occurred between the ages of 14 and 15 years. The differences suggest that sensitivity to social media use might be linked to developmental changes, possibly changes in the structure of the brain, or to puberty, which occurs later in boys than in girls. This requires further research.

‘Changes in brain development and puberty make us vulnerable’

Dr Orben said: “The link between social media use and mental wellbeing is clearly very complex. Changes within our bodies, such as brain development and puberty, and in our social circumstances appear to make us vulnerable at particular times of our lives.

“With our findings, rather than debating whether or not the link exists, we can now focus on the periods of our adolescence where we now know we might be most at risk and use this as a springboard to explore some of the really interesting questions.”

The researchers say, however, that while their findings show at a population level there is a link between social media usage and poorer wellbeing, it’s not yet possible to predict with any accuracy which individuals are most at risk.

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge University and a co-author of the study, added: “It’s not possible to pinpoint the precise processes that underlie this vulnerability. Adolescence is a time of cognitive, biological and social change, all of which are intertwined, making it difficult to disentangle one factor from another. For example, it is not yet clear what might be due to developmental changes in hormones or the brain and what might be down to how an individual interacts with their peers.”

Click here for the full journal article.

Author: Simon Weedy

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