Special issue of Journal of Adolescent ResearchSenior Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., director of our Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab, recently served as a guest editor for a special issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research focused on adolescent and emerging adult development in an age of social media.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the special issue, co-written by Katie Davis, Ph.D., of the University of Washington, Charmaraman, and Emily Weinstein, Ed.D., of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Importance of researching the effects of social media on young people

There is no shortage of public opinion—from unbridled enthusiasm to desperate hand-wringing—about the impact of networked technologies on today’s young people. Popular accounts typically fall into two categories: general or extreme . . . or both. Some paint youth with a very broad brush: Today’s youth are all digital natives, born with an instinctive aptitude for technology. Teens are addicted to smartphones and social media, and it’s hurting their development. Other accounts point out extreme cases: The deeply troubling, but still relatively rare, suicides attributable to online harassment. The highly visible—but again, relatively rare—youth influencers on Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. Depicting youth in these overly general and extreme terms is neither accurate nor helpful, but it certainly has consequences. These characterizations will shape how decisions are made about parenting practices, teaching approaches inside and outside of the classroom, the structure and organization of schools and out-of-school learning environments, and mental health interventions for high-risk youth. It’s time to get specific if we are going to get it right when it comes to understanding and supporting youth’s positive development in a networked age. Sound empirical research has an important role to play here.

The special issue’s contributions to our knowledge about youth and social media

The articles in this special issue are neither broad nor extreme. The authors employ a variety of methods and perspectives to understand the developmental dimensions of adolescents’ and emerging adults’ experiences with networked technologies. Within the context of child development, it is during the remarkable period of adolescence when the vast majority of the U.S. population obtains their first mobile phone and must navigate this pervasive, networked world against the backdrop of the social, cultural, political, and economic norms in their communities. A tween navigating YouTube at night without any adult supervision has a different ability to set limits before bed than an older teen engaging in the same behavior. A sixth grader may be more emotionally and socially ready to handle the responsibility of a smartphone than a socially anxious eighth-grader within the same household and set of caregivers. The online identity exploration and romantic relationships that can occur between older adolescence and emerging adulthood can build social capital, but also fear of missing out (FOMO). A developmental lens helps us to make sense of these relatively new behaviors by accounting for the underlying motivations and processes shaping them.

Potential practical implications of this research

There are practical implications for educational and healthcare practice, parenting, policy, and technology design. For example, this research could be used to raise awareness of the online vulnerabilities faced by certain groups of people, or particular critical developmental transitions. Online parent communities can network with one another to share the latest findings that pertain to pressing issues for their adolescents. Policymakers can make use of evidence-based studies to back up their initiatives to reduce harm and promote well-being through digital media communication. Increased knowledge of identity and social/emotional development would also benefit social media engineers who have the power to design systems tailored to the unique challenges facing adolescents and emerging adults in this pervasive digital age.

January 29, 2020

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