A recent study on adolescents in the UK has identified a gender difference in how much time young men and women spend using social media on average.
What’s a real concern is the suggestion of a link between those added hours spent clicking and future wellbeing. For pre-teen girls at least, more time on social media could precede a drop in happiness in years to come.
Researchers at the University of Essex and University College London analysed the results of a national UK Household Panel Study, which consisted of responses to survey questions collected periodically between 2009 and 2015.
The team was specifically interested in answers provided by several thousand adolescents aged 10 to 15 on their social media use during the school week.
These answers were then compared to a second set of results detailing the teenagers’ happiness and socio-emotional difficulties.
Added together, the data provided the researchers with an indication of just how much young teenagers used social sites like Bebo, Facebook, and MySpace in the past decade, and as well as their emotional turmoil over ensuing years.
At age 13, roughly half of the girls surveyed were using social media sites for about an hour each school day, compared with about a third of all boys.
Two years later there were more boys on board, with just under half using social media. Though by then nearly two thirds of girls were jumping online for an hour or more to like, share, and gossip.
Based on the tools used to evaluate happiness and emotional difficulties, general wellbeing declined across the board among all teenagers, which probably comes as a surprise to nobody.
But breaking down the figures further, the researchers found there was a clear relationship between the amount of social media use among female adolescents and their relative decline in wellbeing.
This same pattern couldn’t be seen among male adolescents.
Why there is this difference is open to speculation.
“Since we did not observe an association between social media use and wellbeing among boys, other factors, such as the amount of time spent gaming, might be associated with the boys’ observed decline in wellbeing,” says lead author Cara Booker from the University of Essex.
There’s a handful of caveats to keep in mind here.
First of all, self-reported surveys for teens might not always be the most accurate measures to use as a general comparison, especially with limited options in scales and gender identity.
Secondly, questions on social media use didn’t extend to weekends or holidays, providing a rather limited scope on how it was being used.
Lastly, correlations like these don’t shine much light on the cause behind worrying trends, leaving it debatable as to whether social media use is responsible for the change in wellbeing or an early symptom of it.
With those in mind, however, the study does through up a red flag we might want to pay closer attention to.
“Our findings suggest that it is important to monitor early interactions with social media, particularly in girls, as this could have an impact on wellbeing later in adolescence and perhaps throughout adulthood,” says Booker.
Let’s face it, historically speaking our teenage years aren’t exactly a walk in the park, even without the pressures that come with snapchatting selfies and scoring hearts.
It’s still early days in our understanding of how the rapid rise of social media could be affecting society at large.
If concerns of those at the heart of the social media industry are any indication, we should be asking some hard questions.
From loss of sleep to simply piling on stress, our new, hyper connected world has some serious potential for harm for most adults.
For teenagers with brains still adjusting to life’s woes, time on Facebook just might be making those crazy puberty blues even more challenging than ever.
This research was published in BMC Public Health.