July 21, 2020

Teens’ Social Media Use Isn’t the Problem

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Research
Teenager looking at computer screen

If you scan the news headlines for stories related to teenagers and social media, a wide variety of negative topics are typically referenced. According to a 2018 survey by Education Week Research Center, “more than half” of the high school principals in the United States stated their concern over children’s social media usage.

But is teens’ social media usage really a problem in the United States?

Qualitative research studies describe many positive influence that social media can have on teens.

The Connected Learning Lab recently released the report “Social Media and Youth Wellbeing: What We Know and Where We Could Go” which evaluates a variety of assumptions regarding teens and social media use. The report is useful for educators and researchers as a starting point for discussion on adolescent social media use, its benefits, and problems that need to be addressed.

When comparing adult concerns over social media with data and analysis by researchers, it becomes more evident that social media use is generally not a problem. “Adolescents’ online risks often mirror offline vulnerabilities. Much of our existing knowledge related to the core principles of how to promote healthy development among young people should translate into an evolving digital landscape” (Ito et al., 2020).

Asking the Right Questions

Should parents and educators limit the amount of exposure that teenagers have to social media?

Instead of focusing on the time spent on social media or debating how much screen time is too much, adults should ask different questions:

  • Who are teens associating with online?
  • Do teens make positive or negative associations on social media?
  • What type of interactions are teens having with each other on social media?
  • Are teens feeling isolated or more connected as a result of their social media use?
  • Should there be a “one size fits all” solution for teens and social media, or should there be a customized approach depending on the individual?

Focusing on screen time and social media use without asking about the specific activities being carried out by teens is shortsighted. Teens spent a great deal of time on screens in the last months of the 2019-2020 school year as a way to maintain friendships. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the screen time debate, as social media has offered one of the only ways for teens to socialize while physically distancing.

Teens Use Social Media for Positive Benefits

Teenagers should feel validated after witnessing adults around the world connecting with friends and family using video chat programs to host “Virtual Happy Hours” and game nights. Chats with friends via social media platforms and participating in online community events are a regular aspect of teen social media usage.

For example, in a recent blog post written by the North America Scholastic Esports Federation, when asked about how she and her fellow teens were keeping in touch during physical distancing, one student said: “Whether it’s texting, getting onto Discord, posting on Instagram or other social media, being in touch with my friends and my club have been helpful to keeping me connected with others.”

The “Social Media and Youth Wellbeing” report also said that: “Most teens and tweens say social media helps support social-emotional wellbeing, boosting confidence and alleviating anxiety, loneliness, and depression.” Therefore, it raises questions challenging the negative perception that some adults have towards social media, noting that “Evidence is limited that social media use is leading to greater vulnerability to mental health problems for youth as a whole” (Ito et al., 2020).

In fact, a number of vulnerable populations of teenagers can benefit from the online support of their peers as well as professionals.

Dr. Mizuko Ito previously wrote an analysis, “Value the Creative and Social-Emotional Upsides of Social Media Suggests New Survey from Common Sense Media” where she mentions several key benefits of teens using social media:

  • Increased daily engagement with social media leads to more meaningful conversations and an increase in creative expression.
  • Almost 75% of teens surveyed were engaged in current events as a result of their regular participation on social media platforms.
  • Social media use helps to support the social-emotional wellbeing of teenagers.
  • Teens dealing with anxiety, depression said that social media helped them deal with these issues.
  • Dr. Ito points out that there are various “creative, relational, and emotional upsides of social media” especially for marginalized and socially vulnerable teens.

Urgency for Further Discussion

As researchers spend more time analyzing what teenagers do on social media and we learn about the overwhelming benefits, it begs the question: What needs to be done to further this conversation? The “Social Media and Youth Wellbeing” report calls on the mental health community for their assistance:

“Given the rising rates of mental health concerns among young people in the United States, we see urgency in focusing research, investment, and public attention on what actually drives and mitigates mental health problems for youth.” (Ito et al., 2020)

Discussions over increased screen time due to physical distancing provide an excellent starting point for communities who care for the wellbeing of young people to help further the conversation started by this report.

To learn more about the work that Connected Learning Lab is leading to create a better approach to help youth, please visit the page dedicated to Youth Connections for Wellbeing.

You may read the full report online at: “Social Media for Youth and Wellbeing: What We Know and Where We Can Go.”

Written by Galel Fajardo