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In Perspective | The years when social media particularly hurts children

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Adolescents and young adults are particularly susceptible to feeling worse about their lives the more they use social media, according to a study published on Monday that shows this effect is particularly pronounced at certain ages, underscoring the need to guard against problematic internet use.

In particular, the authors found distinct windows of age — 14-15 years and 19 years for boys and 11-13 years and 19 years for girls — when social media use appeared to particularly relate to reduced life satisfaction a year later.

The findings are significant because adolescence is a particularly sensitive period for social development, self-perception and social interaction. Previous studies, including some by tech companies themselves, have shown problematic media use can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem in general, with bullying and harassment being particular cause-and-effect factors.

“The link between social media use and mental well-being is clearly very complex. Changes within our bodies, such as brain development and puberty, and in our social circumstances appear to make us vulnerable at particular times of our lives,” Amy Orben, one of the others and a researcher at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement issued by the research centre the authors are a part of.

The study, conducted by a team led by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and published in the journal Nature Communications, is based on a routine household survey conducted in the UK. Responses from over 80,000 people who reported their social media use and how satisfied they felt with their life were studied to understand these correlations.

With these findings, Orben added, “rather than debating whether or not the link exists, we can now focus on the periods of our adolescence where we now know we might be most at risk and use this as a springboard to explore some of the really interesting questions.”

The authors note that their observations for young adolescents also differed from those in older ages in another significant way. The effect of technology on older age groups was consistent with what has been called the “Goldilocks hypothesis”, a concept based on past studies that shows both too much or too little technology use might be harmful.

But this was not the case with younger adolescents, since even “those who reported very little social media use did not routinely score lower on life satisfaction”.

Behind these may be factors that could be difficult to pin down. “It’s not possible to pinpoint the precise processes that underlie this vulnerability. Adolescence is a time of cognitive, biological and social change, all of which are intertwined, making it difficult to disentangle one factor from another. For example, it is not yet clear what might be due to developmental changes in hormones or the brain and what might be down to how an individual interacts with their peers,” said professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge and a co-author of the study.

Critically, these correlations may play out differently in countries such as India where social, cultural and economic factors could make the outcomes of technology use different.

In a study published on March 10 in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, some of the same Cambridge and Oxford researchers involved in the Nature study said they found “a striking lack” of inputs from the Global South nations.

They said the findings based on studies carried out in rich countries — “70% of the studied samples were from the Global North” — cannot be generalised to the Global South given the stark socio-economic or contextual differences.

But what is known is that social media use is a significant contributor to mental harm in the case of Indian teenagers and young adults. A 2021 study by psychiatry researchers from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Delhi and Chennai Schizophrenia Research Foundation found that the “commonest drivers of mental health problems were reported to be academic pressure, substance use and problematic internet/social media”.

In Perspective takes a deep dive into current issues, the visible and invisible factors at play, and their implications for our future

The views expressed are personal

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