What’s the Harm for Teens in Social Media?

Kids these days. Social media seems to consume them. Gen Z, also known as the iGen, has grown up with smartphones and these apps. So it often defines the generation. Cranky codgers might decry it, but thoughtful researchers look at the potential benefits and harms. An association with psychological distress crops up as a worry for heavy users. But a new study suggests that the problem might not be that social media per se is problematic. Rather, the real problem might be that it can displace sleep and physical activity – especially for girls.

Girls Are Different

Writing in Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, Russell Viner and colleagues say that mental health problems linked to heavy social media use might be due to less sleep and physical activity. In addition, exposure to online bullying might have a role as well. That’s what they found for girls. The association between heavy social media use and psychological distress disappeared when they took those three factors into account.

These observations come from a secondary analysis of longitudinal and observational data from the Our Future study. In other words, it’s good for generating ideas about what might be going on. This analysis, by itself, can’t prove cause and effect.

On top of that, it doesn’t really tell us a lot about how this works for boys. Only that the link between heavy social media use and psychological distress is real. But the mechanism for the link is simply not the same as it is for girls.

Risks and Benefits

The real point here is not that social media is bad for teens. To the contrary, Yalda Uhls et al point out that it has both benefits and risks. By and large, it can help with key developmental goals for teens. It can help with learning difficulties and other issues that might cause social isolation. It has definite risks, too.

Exposure to bullying online is definitely a problem. It’s not only a source of psychological distress, but also a potential trigger for obesity. That could be one factor in the link between social media use and obesity.

Like it or not, social media is here and unlikely to disappear from the lives of teens. So the challenge is to manage its risks.

Click here for the Viner study, here for expert reaction to it, and here for more on the link between social media and childhood obesity.

Txting, photograph © Summer Skyes 11 / flickr

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August 17, 2019