Lately it seems, not a day goes by, that we don’t hear that social media is doing untold damage to our young people. We see headlines comparing the use of social media to the use of cigarettes, alcohol and even cocaine or heroin. We hear that the time kids are spending online is destroying their brains, or at least, having a detrimental effect of their development. The media seems awash with op-ed pieces on “social media addiction“, “Facebook Addiction” or “Smartphone addiction“. More and more, we hear strident voices claiming that teenagers are incapable of caring for themselves in the online environment and that the landscape is “dark and full of terrors”. Kids are spending too much time online, we don’t know what they’re up to, and we have to put a stop to it.
Among young people, the use of smartphones, social media and social networking sites is ubiquitous. Along with the smartphone, computer mediated communication has, in a short time, become the norm for a generation. In Ireland, smartphone ownership of those aged between 16 and 29 has all but reached saturation point; 96% of those in that age group use mobile phones or smartphones to access the internet. Of those young smartphone users, 91% are likely to use their devices for social networking. Further, studies show that young smartphone owners check their devices between 50 and 85 times per day. So, given this widespread adoption of both hardware and social software packages, it is important that we investigate if this technology is having an effect on its users, what the outcomes are, and whether these outcomes are having positive or negative consequences for wellbeing.
Firstly, though, let’s get some social media myths out of the way. There is an opinion out there, that social media or technology is having an overall detrimental effect on wellbeing, that it causes depression and/or increases loneliness, among other things. While there may be anecdotal evidence that this is true, or perhaps public sentiment that this is the case, these anecdotes are not underpinned by scientific evidence. Social media use, both frequency and intensity, has been implicated in a host of negative social, emotional and behavioural outcomes for users: decreased motivation and poor academic performance, greater psychosocial maladjustment, poor subjective wellbeing and depression, negative body image comparisons, and cyberbullying. That said, the vast majority of studies that find links between social media use and psychological effects are correlational, making it difficult to draw causal inferences.
We also hear that people are “addicted ” to social media, smartphones or particular platforms. This is also not the case; there are no such disorders. While some may use social media problematically, and for some, social media use may impinge on their lives, there are no clinically recognised addictions to these platforms or these devices; the term “addiction” is being used in the colloquial sense. In fact, it has been argued that using this type of language does a disservice to those who are suffering from addictions. The other myth that needs busting is that these addictions are driven by “Dopamine”; that every time we use social media we get a neurochemical reward, that we like and crave this reward, and that we keep going back for more. Dopamine is sloshing around us all the time. Anything pleasurable can lead to increased dopamine availability in the brain but only very few (such as drugs of abuse) lead to chemical dependence.
Amy Orben (Follow her @OrbenAmy), a social media researcher from Oxford University, likens the use of social media to eating, when we talk of outcomes of social media use. When we think of it this way, we can see how difficult it is to say that one thing leads to another. It would be like saying “Eating causes depression”. We see, immediately, how unreasonable this sounds. We need more information – What and how much was eaten? When did our particpants eat it? Who were they with? How were they feeling before they ate? Did they eat because they were depressed? What were the ingredients? Does the person have allergies? Why did they eat what they ate? The list of really pertinent questions goes on. So it is with social media research. There are so many variables that must be accounted for, that it is nearly impossible to apportion blame solely to the use of social media or a simple metric like “screentime”. Indeed, social media allows us to do so many things with so many others, that disentangling what exactly is responsible for what, is extremely difficult.
That is not to say that social media is blameless – it is to say, though, that we need more research. Not only this, but we need more nuanced research; research that shows the effects of social media unambiguously. Firstly, we need to situate research in the world of the user, knowing that they use a dynamic, evolving media, in a socially connected environment. We need to examine the assumptions we make when we describe young people as “digital natives”. Is mere membership of a social networking community enough to draw conclusions about the psychological state of the user? We need integrated, contextual, user-defined examinations, combined with research and theory, to provide us with accurate information. With this kind of research we can compare the effects of social media with the effects of other events happening in the lives of our young people; diet, parenting, education, sleep, etc. This kind of research helps us to inform, to educate and to help. It is not adequate to correlate “screentime” with complex psychological constructs using online, self-report surveys; this type of research is misleading. Taking into account the perspective and social interactivity of young people, the shifting, dynamic landscape of social media and that fact that users experience both positive and negative consequences, will ensure that correct, appropriate and relevant information enters the public domain.
We social media researchers, need to explain to the public that the relationship young people have with technology is complex; it’s not as simple as “screentime”. Young social media users reason, choose and decide how to spend their time and these decisions are based on their goals, interests and temperament. These decisions are not made in a vacuum either; context, family situation, and social relationships all play a key role in time spent on line, whether this time is active or passive, skilled or not. When we consider metrics, not only do age and gender need to be considered, but we also have to think of social class, the device itself and its connectivity, the affordances and constraints of life, who is being connected to and when, where these connections are being made and why and, importantly, what type of activity is occurring. Communicating this complexity is not going to be easy, but it has to be done. Simplistic answers lead to simplistic, ineffective solutions.