The boys and girls in the study reached a second period of social media sensitivity around the age of 19. “It was quite surprising because it was so consistent across genders,” Dr. Orben said. Around this age, she says, many people go through major social upheavals — like starting college, working a new job, or living independently for the first time — that could change the way they interact with social media. , she said.
Although the new report draws on richer datasets than previous studies, it still lacks some information that would be helpful in interpreting the results, experts said. Waiting an entire year between responses is not ideal, for example. And while the surveys asked how much time participants spent communicating on social media, they didn’t ask how they used it; talking to strangers while simultaneously playing a video game can have different effects than texting a group of school friends.
Taken together with previous work, the findings suggest that while most teens are not greatly affected by social media, a small subset may be significantly harmed by its effects. But it is impossible to predict the risks for any particular child.
“For your 12-year-old, what does this mean for him? It’s hard to know,” said Michaeline Jensen, a clinical psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Given the small effect seen in the study, “very few of these children would go from normal functioning to clinical levels of depression,” she said. But “that doesn’t mean none of them would.”
Dr. Jensen pointed out that the study also found a link in the opposite direction: Across all ages, participants who felt bad about their lives ended up spending more time on social media a year later. This suggests that for some people, technology may be a coping mechanism rather than the cause of their gloom.
All of these experts often say they are frustrated with public debates about social media and children, which so often inflate the harms of platforms and ignore their benefits.
“It has risks – peer influence, contagion, substance use,” Dr Jensen said. “But it can also bring a lot of positive things,” like support, connection, creativity and skill mastery, she added. “I think a lot of times that gets overlooked because we’re so focused on the risks.”
Sound produced by Kate Winslet.