Study Finds Social Media Use Negatively Affects Male and Female Adolescents at Different Ages

Caleb Rans, PharmD

April 01, 2022

A cross-sectional study in the United Kingdom has revealed an association between social media use and lower life satisfaction among children and adolescents aged 10-21 years.

"[Our] study provides evidence for age- and sex-specific windows of sensitivity to social media use in adolescence," lead author Amy Orben, PhD, of the University of Cambridge (England), and colleagues wrote. The findings were published in Nature Communications.

The researchers analyzed cross-sectional and longitudinal data from the Understanding Society dataset and the Millennium Cohort Study. The cross-sectional data was used to investigate the existence of developmental windows of sensitivity to social media, while the longitudinal data was used to evaluate whether sex-specific windows of sensitivity to social media were present during the adolescence period.

These two datasets comprised 84,011 participants aged 10-80 years old. After applying the modeling framework, 17,409 participants aged 10-21 years were included in the analysis.

Longitudinal analyses revealed different developmental windows of sensitivity to social media during adolescence, with higher estimated social media use predicting lower life satisfaction scores 1 year later (regression coefficient [beta], −0.02; 95% confidence interval, −0.03 to −0.01; P = .004).

Among females, the researchers observed a window of sensitivity to social media between the ages of 11 and 13, with higher estimated social media use predicting lower life satisfaction ratings 1 year later (age 11: beta, −0.11; 95% CI, −0.21 to −0.02; P = .020; age 12: beta, −0.14; 95% CI, −0.22 to −0.07; P < .001; age 13: beta, −0.08; 95% CI, −0.15 to −0.01; P = .019).

Among males, a similar window was observed between the ages of 14 and 15 (age 14: beta, −0.10; 95% CI, −0.17 to −0.03; P = .005; age 15: beta, –0.18; 95% CI, −0.29 to −0.08; P = .001).

Furthermore, they showed that a later increase in sensitivity to social media, which was present at age 19 for both females and males, suggested a different underlying process was present in late adolescence (females: beta, −0.16; 95% CI, −0.25 to −0.07; P < .001; males: beta, −0.16; 95% CI, −0.26 to −0.07; P = .001).

"Speculatively, this might be related to changes in the social environment such as a move away from home and subsequent disruptions in social networks," the researchers wrote.

Importantly, Orben and colleagues noted that these results should be interpreted with caution. Owing to the cross-sectional nature of the data, causality cannot be inferred from these findings.

"The findings reported here may enable investigation of potential mechanisms of interest, for example, in datasets with pubertal or additional social measurements," they wrote. "One could also carry out more targeted investigations, for example, by examining the mental health measures only completed by select age ranges in the datasets."

Digital Literacy Is Important, Expert Says

"Digital literacy and education about social media use is warranted for all ages, starting young," Yalda T. Uhls, MBA, PhD, of the department of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an interview. "Attending to underlying issues for vulnerable ages, such as anxiety, as well as parental support is critical."

"I would urge social media platforms to pay attention to what kinds of content they are making available to ensure the highest possible quality, and to embed things like suggestions for pauses and other ways to check in on someone who may be experiencing distress when on socials," Uhls said. "We also need to increase access to mental health resources for young people and social media could help provide information for those experiencing issues."

This study was supported by the University of Cambridge and the UK Medical Research Council. The authors reported no relevant disclosures. Uhls had no relevant disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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