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The Pros and Cons of Social Media for Youth

A new review article looks at how social media affects well-being in youth..

Key points

  • Social media has both positive and negative effects on well-being in youth.
  • Social media impacts four distinct areas for youth: connections, identity, learning, and emotions.

More than 90 percent of teenagers in the U.S. have a smartphone. Access to this type of technology and social networking changes the playing field for young people who are simultaneously developing a sense of identity and new social relationships.

Leszek Czerwonka/Adobe Stock
Source: Leszek Czerwonka/Adobe Stock

We have certainly heard about the downside of teens and smartphones: cyberbullying, anxiety, and a misrepresented sense of body image. Research demonstrates there are some benefits too, including the ability to keep in touch with friends and loved ones – especially when the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person social interactions.

A new systematic review published in the journal Adolescent Research Review combines the evidence from qualitative studies that investigate adolescent social media use.

The authors found, in short, that the links between adolescent well-being and social media are complicated and depend on a broad range of factors.

“Adults have always been concerned about how the latest technology will harm children,” said Amanda Purington, director of evaluation and research for ACT for Youth in the BCTR and a doctoral candidate in Cornell’s Social Media Lab. “This goes back to radio programs, comic books, novels – you name it, adults were worried about it. The same is now true for social media. And yes, there are concerns – there are many potential risks and harms. But there are potential benefits, too.”

Reviewing 19 studies of young people ages 11 to 20, the authors identified four major themes related to social media and well-being that ultimately affected aspects of young people’s mental health and sense of self.

The first theme, connections, describes how social media either supports or hinders young people’s relationships with their peers, friends, and family. The studies in the review provided plenty of examples of ways that social media helped youth build connections with others. Participants reported that social media helped to create intimacy with friends and could improve popularity. Youth who said they were shy reported having an easier time making friends through social media. Studies also found social media was useful in keeping in touch with family and friends who live far away and allowing groups to communicate in masse. In seven papers, participants identified social media as a source of support and reassurance.

In 13 of the papers, youth reported that social media also harmed their connections with others. They provided examples of bullying and threats and an atmosphere of criticism and negativity during social media interactions. Youth cited the anonymity of social media as part of the problem, as well as miscommunication that can occur online.

Study participants also reported a feeling of disconnection associated with relationships on social media. Some youth felt rejected or left out when their social media posts did not receive the feedback they expected. Others reported feeling frustrated, lonely, or paranoid about being left out.

The second theme, identity, describes how adolescents are supported or frustrated on social media in trying to develop their identities.

Youth in many of the studies described how social media helped them to “come out of their shells” and express their true identities. They reported liking the ability to write and edit their thoughts and use images to express themselves. They reported that feedback they received on social media helped to bolster their self-confidence and they reported enjoying the ability to look back on memories to keep track of how their identity changed over time.

In eight studies, youth described ways that social media led to inauthentic representations of themselves. They felt suspicious that others would use photo editing to disguise their identities and complained about how easy it was to deliver communications slyly, rather than with the honesty required in face-to-face communication. They also felt self-conscious about posting selfies, and reported that the feedback they received would affect their feelings of self-worth.

The third theme, learning, describes how social media use supports or hinders education. In many studies, participants reported how social media helped to broaden their perspectives and expose them to new ideas and topics. Many youths specifically cited exposure to political and social movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

On the flip side, youth in five studies reported that social media interfered with their education. They said that phone notifications and the pressure to constantly check in on social media distracted them from their studies. Participants reported that they found it difficult to spend quiet time alone without checking their phones. Others said the 24-7 nature of social media kept them up too late at night, making it difficult to get up for school the next day.

The fourth theme, emotions, describes the ways that social media impacts young people’s emotional experiences in both positive and negative ways. In 11 papers, participants reported that social media had a positive effect on their emotions. Some reported it improved their mood, helped them to feel excited, and often prompted laughter. (Think funny animal videos.) Others reported that social media helped to alleviate negative moods, including annoyance, anger, and boredom. They described logging onto social media as a form of stress management.

But in nearly all of the papers included in the review, participants said social media was a source of worry and pressure. Participants expressed concern about judgment from their peers. They often felt embarrassed about how they looked in images. Many participants expressed worry that they were addicted to social media. Others fretted about leaving a digital footprint that would affect them later in life. Many participants reported experiencing pressure to constantly respond and stay connected on social media. And a smaller number of participants reported feeling disturbed by encountering troubling content, such as self-harm and seeing former partners in new relationships.

“As this review article highlights, social media provides spaces for adolescents to work on some of the central developmental tasks of their age, such as forming deeper connections with peers and exploring identity,” Purington said. “I believe the key is to help youth maximize these benefits while minimizing risks, and we can do this by educating youth about how to use social media in ways that are positive, safe, and prosocial.”

The take-home message: The body of evidence on social media and well-being paints a complicated picture of how this new technology is affecting youth. While there are certainly benefits when young people use social media, there is also a broad range of pressures and negative consequences.

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