LONDON – Widespread fears over the harmful effects on teenagers of spending hours on social media could be misplaced, according to a major British study.
It claims online activity has only a “trivial” effect on their happiness, flying in the face of research and the prevailing opinion of many parents.
The survey of 12000 teenagers suggests that less than 1% of adolescent unhappiness can be blamed on the use of sites such as Facebook.
Lead co-author Professor Andrew Przybylski, of the University of Oxford, said society should “retire the notion” of focusing on the amount of time which young users spend online.
Instead, research should examine if particular aspects of online behaviour had negative impacts on mental health, such as looking at potentially harmful pages or posts. The study said leading social media companies had data which could shed light on the problem but were reluctant to share it with scientists.
The researchers added: “We show that social media effects are not a one-way street. They are nuanced, reciprocal, possibly contingent on gender, and arguably trivial in size.”
Przybylski said the debate over internet usage often focused on tragedies, but added: “Tragedies are a poor form of evidence.”
The study followed teen social media use from 2009 to 2016 as part of a long-term survey of households. It concluded that lower life satisfaction led to an increase in activity while social media use led to lower life satisfaction, but the trends were only “modest”.
Co-lead author Amy Orben said: “What this shows us is we need to stop looking at social media as a whole and to think about the nuances.”
She added statistical analysis concluded that “99.75% of a young person’s life satisfaction for a given year had nothing to do with how they used social media”. This indicated that such websites accounted for “less than 1%” of a teenager’s life satisfaction.
“If we find that a specific activity is more harmful than the rest, that would be an opportunity to think about what we can do instead of decrying that everything is bad,” Orben said.
In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Przybylski said concerns over screen time were reminiscent of those in the early 1980s about the arcade game Space Invaders.
Dr Max Davie, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This paper suggests that social media has a limited effect on teenage life satisfaction. However, there are still issues around screen time more generally and a risk that screen time may interfere with other important activities like sleep, exercise and spending time with family or friends.
“We recommend families follow our guidance and avoid screen use for one hour before bed.”