There is a popular assumption that teens’ wellbeing is intricately linked to their social media use. The thinking goes that if they’re spending a lot of time online, and they’re unhappy, it must be because they’re spending a lot of time online.
But a new study from Dr. Charmaraman and her colleagues found that although teens were using social technologies more during COVID-19 lockdowns, and experiencing increases in social anxiety, loneliness, and depression, there was no evidence that one caused the other.
The aims of this longitudinal survey study of 586 middle school students in the Northeast U.S. were to examine (a) changes in positive and negative social technology behaviors prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (fall 2019) compared to during the pandemic (fall 2020), and (b) whether changes in social technology behaviors were associated with wellbeing outcomes.
Dr. Charmaraman and her co-authors found that during this time period, there were significant increases in frequency of checking social media, social technology use before bedtime, problematic internet use, and positive social media use, such as providing support to others and online civic engagement. Students also experienced significant increases in social anxiety, loneliness, and depressive symptoms (and on the bright side, increased strategies of coping when stressed).
The researchers did not find any strong evidence, however, that the changes in wellbeing that teens experienced were meaningfully related to their social technology use. Interestingly, although there were significant increases in time spent on social media, there were no increases in negative online interactions such as harassment—which may provide some relief to parents and educators that this increased time did not necessarily expose youth to more harmful social interactions.
Research reported in this publication was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under award number R15HD094281-01. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.