Massive, careful study finds that social media use is generally neutral for kids' happiness, and sometimes positive

In Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction, a pair of Oxford psych researchers and a colleague from Stuttgart's University of Hohenheim review a large, long-running data-set (Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, 2009–2016) that surveyed 12,672 adolescents at eight points over seven years.

The researchers conclude that social media use (or non-use) accounted for a very small part of a teen's sense of wellbeing (<1% overall), that social media users were very slightly less satisfied than non-using peers, but that long-term social media use is correlated with a slight improvement in life satisfaction scores (all of these effects are more pronounced in girls than in boys).

The researchers don't offer an explanation for the disparity in non-users of social media versus long-term users, but it's not hard to think of some testable hypotheses, like "overall dissatisfaction is caused by phenomena that drive higher levels of social media use, like a lack of opportunity to socialize with friends offline" or "the longer you use social media, the closer and more meaningful the social bonds you forge there become, and this makes you better supported and hence happier in life."

The relations linking social media use and life satisfaction are, therefore, more nuanced than previously assumed: They are inconsistent, possibly contingent on gender, and vary substantively depending on how the data are analyzed. Most effects are tiny—arguably trivial; where best statistical practices are followed, they are not statistically significant in more than half of models. That understood, some effects are worthy of further exploration and replication: There might be small reciprocal within-person effects in females, with increases in life satisfaction predicting slightly lower social media use, and increases in social media use predicting tenuous decreases in life satisfaction.

With the unknowns of social media effects still substantially outnumbering the knowns, it is critical that independent scientists, policymakers, and industry researchers cooperate more closely. Scientists must embrace circumspection, transparency, and robust ways of working that safeguard against bias and analytical flexibility. Doing so will provide parents and policymakers with the reliable insights they need on a topic most often characterized by unfounded media hype. Finally, and most importantly, social media companies must support independent research by sharing granular user engagement data and participating in large-scale team-based open science. Only then will we truly unravel the complex constellations of effects shaping young people in the digital age.

Social media’s enduring effect on adolescent life satisfaction [Amy Orben, Tobias Dienlin, and Andrew K. Przybylski/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]

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