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Social media: a new paradigm for public opinion

The risks and benefits of social media for teenagers

Luisa Fassi, doctoral student at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge
On June 6th, 2023 |
4 min reading time
Luisa Fassi
doctoral student at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge
Key takeaways
  • The mental health of adolescents has been deteriorating in recent years, with an increase in anxiety, depression, and suicide rates.
  • Most studies report an association between mental health problems and time spent on social networks, but none have identified a causal link.
  • To better understand the impact of social networks, we need to look at how they are used, the type of activity they engage in, and the type of content observed and shared.
  • Chatting with friends or family is an activity on social networks that is associated with better mental health.
  • Conversely, cyber-bullying or exposure to shocking content has a negative impact on teenagers' mental health.

Tik­Tok, Insta­gram and Snapchat are now part of the dai­ly lives of 10–24-year-olds, whether it’s to fol­low the lives of influ­encers, watch videos or send mes­sages to each oth­er. Social net­works are often pre­sent­ed as a threat to the well-being of teenagers. For some years now, these plat­forms and their reper­cus­sions have been the sub­ject of numer­ous sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies, wide­ly report­ed in the media. 

Recent­ly, neu­ro­sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na1 in the Unit­ed States showed that cog­ni­tive changes were tak­ing place in the brains of teenagers who spend a lot of time on social net­works. They seem to devel­op a height­ened sen­si­tiv­i­ty to social rewards, and there­fore to the com­ments and opin­ions of those around them. The authors them­selves qual­i­fy these results, stat­ing that they do not know whether this effect is pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive. Fur­ther­more, since ado­les­cence is a peri­od when social rela­tion­ships devel­op, these cog­ni­tive changes could be explained by oth­er fac­tors, such as the devel­op­ment of links with peers. 

Adolescents more affected by mental disorders 

Thou­sands of oth­er stud­ies have exam­ined the rela­tion­ship between teenagers and social net­works. Luisa Fas­si, a doc­tor­al stu­dent in psy­chi­a­try, is work­ing on this issue in the MRC Cog­ni­tion and Brain Sci­ences Unit at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty in the UK. As part of a sys­tem­at­ic review, she analysed around 5,000 stud­ies to deter­mine whether dig­i­tal plat­forms influ­enced the men­tal health of ado­les­cents. For the spe­cial­ist, the cur­rent state of research does not yet pro­vide a clear answer.

What is cer­tain, for the time being, is that teenagers are not doing as well as they used to. “The men­tal health of teenagers has been declin­ing for some years now. Com­pared with pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, they seem to have more prob­lems such as anx­i­ety, depres­sion and eat­ing dis­or­ders”, says Luisa Fas­si. There has also been an increase in the sui­cide rate, par­tic­u­lar­ly among girls. Admis­sions to emer­gency depart­ments for sui­cide attempts rose by more than 40% in 2021 com­pared with the pre­vi­ous three years, accord­ing to data from San­té Publique France pub­lished by Libéra­tion2

Social net­works are often pre­sent­ed as one of the expla­na­tions, or even the real cause, of this malaise. In 2015, Jean Twenge, an Amer­i­can psy­chol­o­gist, not­ed that teenagers were increas­ing­ly suf­fer­ing from lone­li­ness and depres­sion, and that this dete­ri­o­ra­tion in their men­tal health was direct­ly linked to the wide­spread use of smart­phones and social net­works. Since then, there seems to be a con­sen­sus in the media and among politi­cians about the harm­ful influ­ence of these plat­forms. Last Decem­ber, Emmanuel Macron described the Chi­nese appli­ca­tion Tik­Tok as “the num­ber one [psy­cho­log­i­cal] dis­rupter” for chil­dren and teenagers. 

Not enough evidence

For Luisa Fas­si, “there has been a lot of debate on this issue over the last few years, and the sub­ject has been exten­sive­ly stud­ied, but we don’t have enough evi­dence to say that social net­works are the main expla­na­tion for the decline in young peo­ple’s men­tal health. We are liv­ing in a time of cri­sis: teenagers are fac­ing increas­ing insta­bil­i­ty in the econ­o­my, at work, in the cli­mate, etc. It’s prob­a­bly a mul­ti-fac­to­r­i­al phe­nom­e­non.” Accord­ing to her research, stud­ies show rather het­ero­ge­neous results, with pos­i­tive, neg­a­tive, weak, and strong links. “This dis­crep­an­cy between the state of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge and the pub­lic’s intu­ition is part­ly due to the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of cer­tain cor­re­la­tion­al evi­dence, which shows an asso­ci­a­tion and is pre­sent­ed as a causal link,” she explains.

If we’re feel­ing more anx­ious, we’re going to spend more time on or TikTok.

Sev­er­al stud­ies have shown an asso­ci­a­tion between time spent on social net­work­ing sites and men­tal health. The more time teenagers spend on social net­work­ing sites, the worse they feel. Anx­i­ety, depres­sion, and mood swings are on the rise. This does not mean, how­ev­er, that the appli­ca­tions are direct­ly respon­si­ble for this dete­ri­o­ra­tion. “The link can go either way: if you feel more anx­ious, you’ll spend more time on Insta­gram or Tik­Tok,” explains Luisa Fas­si. Con­verse­ly, stud­ies that look at the phe­nom­e­non over time show more het­ero­ge­neous results, with impacts on cer­tain groups of teenagers. Girls are more neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed by social net­works than boys. Beyond gen­der, age also plays a role. A study pub­lished in Nature in 20223 analysed the rela­tion­ship between time spent using plat­forms and feel­ings of sat­is­fac­tion in life, for 17,000 peo­ple aged between 10 and 21. The time of great­est sen­si­tiv­i­ty for both gen­ders was 19, but for boys alone it was 14–15. For girls, this peri­od is between 11 and 13.

Certain content associated with better mental health

“Social net­works are not the only thing that can eas­i­ly be test­ed in a study. There are many com­po­nents, which need to be analysed sep­a­rate­ly to under­stand their impact. So, there’s the time spent on it, but also the type of con­tent and activ­i­ties to which we are exposed”, says Luisa Fas­si. A wide range of con­tent coex­ists on appli­ca­tions such as Insta­gram, Face­book, Tik­Tok and Snapchat. You can look at your friends’ pho­tos, chat by mes­sage, watch videos, and so on. The most pop­u­lar activ­i­ty among 11–18-year-olds is chat­ting with friends or fam­i­ly, accord­ing to a sur­vey by the Généra­tion Numérique asso­ci­a­tion. And it is exact­ly this type of activ­i­ty that is asso­ci­at­ed with bet­ter men­tal health, accord­ing to the stud­ies analysed by the doc­tor­al stu­dent. Con­verse­ly, cyber-bul­ly­ing or expo­sure to offen­sive con­tent has a neg­a­tive impact on teenagers’ men­tal health.

So, are social net­works good or bad for young peo­ple’s morale? When asked by par­ents or politi­cians, Luisa Fas­si uses this metaphor: “Is drink­ing bad? Are we talk­ing about water or alco­hol, and in what quan­ti­ties? Too much water can be dan­ger­ous for our bod­ies”. This is a dif­fi­cult ques­tion, because social net­works are com­plex plat­forms with mul­ti­ple uses and con­tent. Their busi­ness mod­el is based on algo­rithms and the cre­ation of an indi­vid­u­alised expe­ri­ence to cap­ture and hold atten­tion. The con­tent on offer is tai­lored to the tastes, pas­sions, and habits of each indi­vid­ual, which makes research into this sub­ject more com­pli­cat­ed. Fur­ther­more, researchers do not have access to data direct­ly from the plat­forms, which could pro­vide a wealth of pre­cise and use­ful infor­ma­tion on the time spent, activ­i­ties under­tak­en, types of con­tent, etc. Most stud­ies are based on self-dec­la­ra­tion by par­tic­i­pants, and the real­i­ty can some­times dif­fer from the data shared by individuals.

“It’s not like a drug, for which we can launch a clin­i­cal tri­al and know the effects. We need more evi­dence and cumu­la­tive data”, says Luisa Fas­si. When will we have these answers? “The pace of research devel­op­ment is very high. I hope that in five years’ time, we will have clear­er answers to inform pol­i­cy­mak­ers and guide reg­u­la­tions. How­ev­er, even when we have pre­cise answers, they will most like­ly be nuanced and con­tra­dic­to­ry, with dif­fer­ent effects for dif­fer­ent groups, depend­ing on the men­tal his­to­ry of ado­les­cents, their age, gen­der, region of ori­gin, etc.”

Sirine Azouaoui

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