Social media may affect the wellbeing of girls and boys at different ages, according to research that raises the prospect of windows of vulnerability in adolescence.
Psychologists found that girls who increased their time on social media between the ages of 11 and 13 were less satisfied with their lives one year later, with the same trend playing out in boys aged 14 to 15.
The researchers found no link between social media and wellbeing at other ages, except at 19 years old, when higher usage was again followed by a drop in life satisfaction for both sexes.
“We find there are certain ages, which differ between the sexes, when social media more substantially predicts life satisfaction,” said Dr Amy Orben, an experimental psychologist and first author on the study at the University of Cambridge.
The researchers embarked on the work in the hope of shedding light on whether the rise of social media has played a role in increasing levels of mental health problems in young people. According to the charity Young Minds, the number of children aged five to 16 with a suspected mental health problem rose by 50% between 2017 and 2021, suggesting about five children in every classroom are now affected.
Orben and her colleagues analyzed data from 84,000 UK individuals aged between 10 and 80 years old who enrolled on either the Understanding Society study or the Millennium Cohort study. These captured information on people’s mental health and wellbeing and their reported use of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp.
The researchers found a two-way effect, where at particular ages, social media use was linked to a drop in life satisfaction a year on, while low life satisfaction was linked to greater social media use the year after. The findings are averages and cannot be used to predict how any one particular individual may respond to social media.
The study, published in Nature Communications, does not prove that social media harms wellbeing, but the researchers suspect there may be “windows of vulnerability”, which open at different times for boys and girls. Given the broad and complex changes that occur in adolescence, biologically and socially, the mechanisms may take some time to nail down.
Prof Yvonne Kelly, an epidemiologist at UCL who was not involved in the study, said the findings confirmed what she and others had shown, including that higher rates of depression among girls were linked to more time on social media, online bullying and poor sleep.
“One of the big challenges with using information about the amount of time spent on social media is that it isn’t possible to know what is going on for young people, and what they are encountering whilst online,” Kelly said.
“To advance the science, and importantly to make changes to improve young people’s wellbeing, we need more detailed, nuanced data about people’s online experiences. It is this kind of information, including that held by social media companies, that will help us better understand any causal processes, for better or worse, that are at play.”
Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a co-author of the study and a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, said it is helpful to set rules on when children use social media so that it does not interfere with their sleep. It is also important to educate them early on about the range of issues they might encounter, she added, such as not being invited to parties, social pressure, and images that might upset them.
Dr Holly Scott, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow, said the study provided “robust new evidence” that there were different sensitive periods for boys and girls. “Girls seem to be more sensitive to the impact of social media slightly earlier than boys, which may be due to maturational processes like puberty starting earlier,” she said.
“Important next steps are to understand from the adolescent perspective what benefits and challenges social media offers, so that we can build on this evidence that measures social media in hours per day, to develop a well-rounded view of the opportunities and barriers that today’s 24/7 online social world can create for our young people,” Scott added.