Negative Effects of Social Media May Impact Adolescent Girls and Boys at Different Ages

A new study suggests certain ‘windows’ of development when youngsters appear most sensitive to technology

A young girl lying in bed with a phone in front of her face
High social media use may simply be a coping mechanism, rather than a cause, of adolescents' mental health challenges.  Elva Etienne via Getty Images

Girls and boys appear to be susceptible to the negative effects of social media use at different ages, according to new research. A study published today in Nature Communications suggests that teens and tweens have different windows of vulnerability to technology depending on their biological sex.

Like many adults, most American teens have a close relationship with their screens. Half of children in the United States own a smartphone by age 11, and nearly 9 out of 10 teenagers have their own device. As teens’ social media use has risen, so have rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, leading scientists to investigate a potential connection, reports Virginia Hughes for the New York Times

“Adolescence is a time of cognitive, biological and social change, all of which are intertwined, making it difficult to disentangle one factor from another,” says study author Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, in a press release.

To look at the relationship between adolescents' social media use and their “life satisfaction,” researchers surveyed 84,000 people in Britain between the ages of 10 and 80 years old, including more than 17,000 tweens and teens. When they analyzed the responses, they found two distinct “windows” of development when heavy social media use lowers life satisfaction: ages 11 to 13 for girls and 14 to 15 for boys.

The results suggest sensitivity to social media use might be linked to developmental or hormonal changes around puberty, which occurs later in boys than in girls.

"The link between social media use and mental wellbeing is clearly very complex,” says study author Amy Orben, also a University of Cambridge psychologist, in a press release. “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.”

The researchers also found that social media use predicts lower life satisfaction at 19 years old in both sexes, per the Guardian’s Ian Sample. While the study authors aren’t sure why that’s the case, it could be that around that age many people go through significant life transitions and may rely more heavily on social media.

It’s not clear if high social media use is a cause or a symptom of lower life satisfaction. Notably, the study participants that reported feeling less satisfied overall spent more time online a year later, reports Nick Morrison for Forbes. Instead of being the root of adolescents' mental health challenges, high social media use may simply be a coping mechanism. 

The scientists behind the work emphasize that their study results are averages, and do not mean social media use has negative impacts on the mental health of all adolescents.

“Not every young person is going to experience a negative impact on their wellbeing from social media use,” study author Rogier Kievit, a neuroscientist at the Donders Institute, notes in a statement. “Some might use social media to connect with friends, or cope with a certain problem or because they don't have anyone to talk to about a particular problem or how they feel—for these individuals, social media can provide valuable support.”

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