When are children most vulnerable to social media?



Published Mar 30, 2022


Girls and boys might be more vulnerable to the negative effects of social media use at different times during their adolescence, according to a study.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers show that girls experience a negative link between social media use and life satisfaction when they are 11-13 years old, and boys when they are 14-15 years old.

Increased social media use again predicts lower life satisfaction at 19 years. At other times, the link was not statistically significant.

The differences between girls and boys' life satisfaction suggest that sensitivity to social media use might be linked to developmental changes, possibly changes in the structure of the brain, or to puberty, which occurs later in boys than in girls.

"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," said Dr Amy Orben, a group leader at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, at University of Cambridge.

"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," added Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge.

A team of scientists including psychologists, neuroscientists, and modellers from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, among others, analysed two UK datasets comprising some 84,000 individuals between the ages of 10 and 80 years old. These included longitudinal data - that is, data that tracks individuals over a period of time - on 17,400 young people aged 10-21 years old.

The team looked for a connection between estimated social media use and reported life satisfaction ,and found key periods of adolescence where social media use was associated with a decrease in life satisfaction 12 months later.

In both females and males, social media use at the age of 19 years was again associated with a decrease in life satisfaction a year later. At this age, the researchers said that it is possible that social changes - such as leaving home or starting work - may make us particularly vulnerable.

At other times, the link between social media use and life satisfaction one year later was not statistically significant. Decreases in life satisfaction also predicted increases in social media use one year later; however this does not change across age and or differ between the sexes, the researchers said.

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