January 3, 2024

Unplugging to Understand: A By Teens, For Teens Study of Social Media

Categories: Connected Learning, Critical Perspectives, Featured, Research, Youth Well-Being

Image: the author and research partner, by Lianne Milton for this Wall Street Journal article.

 

I am 19-years-old and I have experienced the highs and lows of social media for the entirety of my childhood and into my early adulthood. Social media allows me to connect with my friends and involve myself in the world around me, but I have also been victim to harmful content throughout my teen years and, like most teens, struggled with over-usage.  Even though I’m getting older, managing social media habits isn’t becoming much easier – maybe because the apps keep getting smarter about how to hook and keep our attention.

I wanted to understand more about how social media might be affecting me, so I designed an experiment using Garmin wearable devices. During my junior year of high school I joined a research competition with two of my friends called Data for a Difference. We conducted a pilot study to see if a short social media break (a “detox”) would result in any changes in our physiological and/or subjective wellbeing. For six days, we wore Garmin watches to track our sleep, heart rate, and stress scores. For the first three days, we used social media as usual and filled out a nightly survey that prompted us to reflect on our day. Then, for the next three days, we completely “detoxed” from all social media platforms.

We analyzed the data through a data analysis research tool, LabFront, which allows researchers to collect data from wearables and manage participants in a unified platform. We saw several indicators of improved metrics relevant to wellbeing – sleep, resting heart rate, stress scores –when compared to the  baseline. For example, during my three day detox period, my Garmin stress score went down by 6 points. However, all three of us felt that the full detox was undesirable (we were missing connections with friends and other benefits) and we felt it was unsustainable to permanently remain in the ‘detox’ mode.

We had two questions after the pilot:

1) Would other teen girls across the country have a similar experience of detoxing from social media that could be captured by Garmin data? And,

2) Would there be a difference between a partial detox vs. a full detox?

Alongside my co-researcher, Isabel Yoblonski, (Junior at University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse), I applied for IRB review and started recruiting other teen girls. We ran the study with a slightly longer intervention period (4 days for baseline and 4 days for the experimental condition) and we randomly assigned participants to either a full disengagement from social media or reduced access to social media. We recruited 44 participants, kept the Garmin protocol, and expanded nightly reflections to allow us to make recommendations that directly incorporated youth voice and agency.

 

At the Connected Learning Summit, I shared some emerging findings and asked for some advice about our data analysis:

In this bigger sample, we are seeing considerable variation in both the magnitude and the direction of impact the experiment had on participants’ heart rate, sleep, and stress scores. For example, a majority of participants had an increase in their total amount of sleep; however, this was not the case for everyone. Some participants got less sleep – and we learned more from their reflections and our post-intervention Zoom interviews about why and how having the detox actually seemed to negatively impact their sleep, since they were used to certain relaxing components of their tech use and had more trouble falling asleep without it. In current headlines, social media is usually illustrated as cutting into adolescents’ sleep time. But our research suggests that social media is affecting teens in many different ways.

Our data support the idea that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to creating healthy social media experiences. We will continue analyzing our data (and publishing our findings, I hope!) with a focus on teen agency and truly understanding that social media does not affect everyone in a monolithic manner. By directly speaking to teens in our research, I hope to give teens an authentic voice in the quickly evolving narrative of how youth are affected by social media. Being a teen in the emerging world of social media research has been a beyond valuable experience and I am excited to continue this work! If you’ve never tried a social media detox, you might want to consider how it could help or hurt your wellbeing. You can also try changing your habits to just limit your use, or re-evaluating these habits to see what makes you feel good – and what doesn’t. If you do, our team would love to hear about your experience!

I’m currently a student researcher at the Center for Digital Thriving at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Join us on a journey of discovering how to digitally thrive. Subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date on our latest research, resources, and events.


Post by Destinee Ramos

Destinee Ramos is a Harvard College student Class of 2026 studying Psychology and Sociology with an interest in human rights. She works as research assistant for the Center for Digital Thriving at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her interest in teens and digital well-being began in high school when she conducted a research project using fitness wearables to track her own reactions to a short social media detox. She has since expanded this work and is now working on a national research study analyzing the effects of social media usage on teenage girls’ mental and physical well being. When she’s not analyzing data, you can find Destinee on the football field or basketball court cheering on the Crimson as a member of the Harvard cheerleading squad.