One of the main criticisms of studies investigating social media’s alleged psychological impacts is the difficulty of establishing causation, rather than mere correlation. In other words, does using social media a lot actually make people unhappy, or is it just that people who are already unhappy are also more likely to use social media a lot?
However that’s starting to change, as a growing number of studies suggest that social media use does indeed contribute to unhappiness, rather than vice versa. The latest example comes from Great Britain, where a study shows that social media use appears to result in lower life satisfaction among tweens and early teens.
The study by the Institute of Labor Economics, titled “Social Media Use and Children’s Wellbeing,” tracked responses from around 4,000 children, ages 10-15 years old, from 2010 to 2014 in the government-administered UK Household Longitudinal Study. The researchers focused specifically on the children’s self-reported feelings of satisfaction across a range of categories, including their school, appearance, family, friends, and life overall, then compared these with the amount of time the respondents spent chatting online using social media apps.
Furthermore, the study addressed the issue of causation by adding another factor, Internet connection speeds at the local level, to the analysis. Although the methodology is complicated, the basic idea is simple enough: if kids with more access to social media are unhappier than their peers with less access, it suggests that social media really may be the culprit.
The researchers found that the amount of time spent chatting on social networks was negatively associated with feelings of satisfaction in categories including school and school work, appearance, family, and life overall, but not friends. For example, spending an hour a day chatting on social networks reduced the probability of being “completely happy” with school work and appearance by 7%, family and school attended by 13%, and life overall by 14%.
Although the study suggests that increased social media usage does in fact contribute to lower life satisfaction, it doesn’t identify a single causative mechanism that would explain why. Instead, the researchers point to three possible explanations, all of which have some support in the data. One possibility is social comparison, in which social media enables kids to compare their own circumstances with those of their peers unfavorably. Another possibility is that time spent on social media takes away from time for activities that contribute to well-being, like sports and face-to-face socializing. The third possibility is that social media exposes children to cyber-bullying.The study also notes that the adverse psychological impacts of social media usage are greater among girls than boys, particularly in the areas of appearance and school attended.