Has Social Media’s Impact on Teens Been Overstated?

In a new wide-scale study on the impact social media has on teen health, the researchers describe it as “trivial” when compared to other factors. Let’s put those findings into context.

The University of Oxford study, published this month in the science journal “PNAS“, is one of the most wide ranging of its kind. Conducted between 2009 and 2017, the researchers quizzed 12,672 young people, aged between 10 and 15, to see how long they spent using social media, like Facebook and Snapchat, during a normal school day. Respondents then rated how satisfied they were with different aspects of their lives.

Previous studies have indicated that prolonged use of social media may result in depression, feelings of unworthiness and jealousy and might even promote suicidal thoughts. However, such studies have often been small, while polls on these topics have lacked scientific grounding. Large-scale research in this area is a welcome addition to these existing studies.

So, what were the findings?

While the researchers in this latest study did find that there were some effects on well-being among both girls and boys, less than half those recorded effects were statistically significant. Those that did register were dwarfed by other factors, for example a child’s relationship with their parents or peers.

The researchers make clear that social media may well have a negative impact on our wellbeing, and it does not purport to make all other research on this topic obsolete—far from. The researchers attest that this study relies on self-reported data and had a limited scope.

What this study does do is give us a narrow insight: screen time itself is not driving down life satisfaction.

“It is entirely possible that there are other, specific, aspects of social media that are really not good for kids … or that there are some young people who are more or less vulnerable because of some background factor,” Prof Andy Przybylski, told the BBC.

Indeed, the researchers call on social media companies to be more transparent with their statistics, so we can gain better insight into patterns of behavior that may indicate a problem.

We do know that social media can be an issue, particularly for children who may already have mental health concerns. For example, we have seen the insidious creep of groups that promote disordered eating patterns and even bill eating disorders as a desirable lifestyle.

While social media companies like Facebook have taken steps against these groups, the problem persists. Clinicians need to be able to understand how and why young people use social media in this way in order to specifically understand how to combat such usage.

To do that they need the data.

This research comes just weeks after the World Health Organisation released its recommendations on what constitutes a “healthy” level of screen time for young people. Does this latest research render those recommendations wrong or without merit? Actually no, and it all comes down to what those recommendations were looking at.

The World Health Organization recommends keeping screen time for young people to an absolute minimum and would prefer no screen time at all for children under four. For older children, it is similarly conservative, but these recommendations focus on the fact that when people use social media they are usually being sedentary. For this reason, reducing screen time can be critical in promoting physical health.

The WHO recommendations don’t address what social media might or might not do to mental health.

As this latest research demonstrates, the issue of social media use is not as black-and-white as media reports may sometimes lead us to believe. Off the back of this research, we might not be so concerned with the amount of screen time our young people are having but rather switch our focus to what young people are engaging with during that screen time.

Take Action

One key way that social media platforms can protect teens is to do better at removing harmful content. Join over 44,000 people and sign and share the petition demanding that Twitter and YouTube step up to ban white supremacists from their platforms.

If you want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling, you too can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You’ll find Care2’s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.


Photo credit: Getty Images.


Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara6 days ago


Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara6 days ago

suggest to the young ladies in the photo that they should consider keeping their hair short. Much lighter, saves hours of washing and drying, saves hot water and products. Much better for the planet.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara6 days ago

Get off the stupid platforms

Jan S
Jan S6 days ago


Colin Clauscen
Colin Clauscen9 days ago

I have read that 51% of Millennials are influenced by social media with their spending, where as only 7 % of Boomers are.

Alea C
Alea C9 days ago


Loredana V
Loredana V9 days ago

I don't know about US teens, but in Europe many studies show the negative impact of social media. Teens should learn to socialise in real life and leave social networks. Adults should do the same.

hELEN hEARFIELD9 days ago


RK R9 days ago

This is an Educational Response to the Peer Review of this topic's research:
I read the original article on PNAS May 2019 (Social Medias enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction) and am not convinced that it warrants a headline statement on social media impact on early teens. Common sense tells us that to have 13 to 15 year olds spending 3 to 5 hours a day on screens is:

1. Sedentary and means spending 3 to 5 hours less playing sport or getting exercize and thus contributing significantly to childhood obesity.
2. Contributes to isolation and solitary occupation, thus reducing time spent with real friends or family or participating in real life events.
3. Could in itself cause health risks as copious reports of self-harm/bullying/suicides show.
4. The actual use of web-sites needs to be explored to get any insight into internet use and subsequent risk. What are the teenagers actually looking at? Social media and other sites? Other sites and some social media? Without content analysis it is impossible to extrapolate cause and effect.
4. Some use (moderate) of screens may help busy teenagers to relax, learn, contact friends etc and may be a positive influence.
5. The PNAS study was not face to face, did not analyse content on screens, did not do mental or physical states before during and after exposure, and confined itself (as all research must) to one constricted and possibly flawed question which their data and methods and stati

Sherry K
Sherry Kohn9 days ago

Many thanks to you !