All those hours spent scrolling social media may be hurting teenagers’ skills in math, reading, and science, while video games are actually associated with higher ability levels, according to a new study of 12,004 Australian high school students published in the International Journal of Communication. As always when discussing these kinds of findings, it’s important to note that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation – but if nothing else, it’s more evidence that excessive social media use can be a red flag for other problems (and maybe video games aren’t so bad after all).
The study looked at the Aussie teens’ scores in international standardized tests for math, reading comprehension and science, as well as the frequency and amount of time they spent engaging with social networks and video games, ranging from “never” to “once or twice a month,” “once or twice a week,” “almost every day,” and “every day.” The analysis controlled for a number of factors including gender, location, indigenous or non-indigenous background, recent immigrant status, household income, and frequency of truancy.
According to the findings, teens who use social networks daily had math scores 20 points below students who never use social media on the tests, or around 4% lower than the overall average of the sample; meanwhile students who use social networks once or twice a month scored about eight points lower on average. The study revealed comparable relationships for science and reading scores.
Meanwhile, students who played video games almost every day scored 15 points higher than the overall average of the sample in math and reading, and 17 points above average in science. Further, the findings indicated that playing video games almost every day was associated with a higher average score than playing once a week or every day, suggesting there are decreasing returns to video games (if there is a causal relationship).
The study points out that correlation doesn’t equal causation, as other explanations are possible. For example, “it is possible that children who are already gifted in the areas of math, science, and reading are also more likely to play online games,” while it may also be the case that “children with lower academic abilities spend more time socializing."
Nonetheless the results are food for thought for parents and educators, as they may help identify teens are at greater risk of academic difficulty.