Adolescents have been early and enthusiastic users of social media. These high levels of engagement have sparked growing concerns about the relationship between technology use and adolescent wellbeing, with heightened concerns around mental health in particular. The focus of this paper and our review was on social media, though we see related patterns and concerns with other forms of technology use, particularly gaming. We reviewed an interdisciplinary body of research and the technology ecosystem for wellbeing support and mental health, as well as conducting interviews with various stakeholders and experts. We found that in many cases misplaced fears are deflecting attention away from other real concerns, resulting in missed opportunities for leveraging technology and online communication to address adolescent mental health problems. We found that youth are actively seeking support for mental wellbeing online, but very few were connecting with digital mental health apps and expertise.
This paper summarizes our current knowledge and redirects the conversation about adolescent social media use and wellbeing in three ways that are particularly relevant in our current moment:
1. Refocusing the debate over the relationship between youth social media use and wellbeing to reflect existing evidence, varied youth perspectives and backgrounds.
2. Identifying teen vulnerabilities and assets that may influence problematic and healthy social media engagement. Differential access and supports available to youth can amplify offline inequalities in wellbeing.
3. Suggesting opportunities where youth social engagement might mitigate vulnerabilities and leverage assets. Recent years have seen tremendous growth in efforts to leverage digital and networked technologies to support mental health. Despite the potential of these apps, few are informed by a developmental approach or tailored to youth, and very few adolescents have adopted them.
This paper is a product of the Wellbeing for Connected Youth project at the Connected Learning Lab at the University of California, Irvine, an interdisciplinary research institute dedicated to studying, designing, and mobilizing digital technology in youth-centered and equitable ways.