Why Tween Social Media Use Impacts Wellbeing Later

Early Exposure to Social Media Leads to Problems in Adolescence

Tweens using social media
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There is no doubt that social media is a huge part of a young person's life. In fact, most teens today live out their lives online. But can a child be too young for social media? According to a study done in the UK, the answer is, yes.

Social Media Study: How Young Is Too Young?

Researchers at the University of Essex and UCL, found an association between time spent on social media in the tween years (age 10) and reduced wellbeing later in adolescence (ages 10-15). What's more, their findings discovered that using social media at a young age directly affected girls, but had a smaller impact on boys. 

In other words, they discovered that girls who spend a lot of time on social media at a young age may be unhappier later on, than teens who used social media less. Additionally, they found that this issue of unhappiness only happens among girls and not among boys. 

"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," said Dr. Cara Booker in a release.

The researchers analyzed data on nearly 10,000 teens from a large national survey of UK households and focused on how much time the young participants spent chatting on social media during a typical school day.

As a result, they noticed that wellbeing appeared to decline throughout adolescence in both boys and girls, based on scores for happiness and other aspects of wellbeing. For instance, social and emotional difficulties declined with age for boys, but rose for girls. Researchers suspect that girls are more sensitive than boys to social comparisons and interactions that impact self-esteem.

They also suspect that the sedentary time spent on social media impacts mental health and happiness in other ways. Although the study does not conclusively prove whether or how social media interactions affect young people’s wellbeing, but it does suggest a connection.

"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 Dr. Booker in the release.

The authors note that compared to girls, boys may spend more time gaming than “chatting” online. Yet, because gaming has become increasingly social, it’s possible that it also has an effect that they did not examine in this study.

To assess wellbeing researchers used two measurements. The first was a happiness score built from questions about how happy they are with different aspects of their life including family and school. And, the second was the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), which measures negative aspects of wellbeing such as emotional and behavioural problems.

The authors found that throughout adolescence happiness scores dropped nearly three points from 36.9 to 33.3 in girls and two points from 36.02 to 34.55 in boys. Meanwhile, SDQ scores dropped for boys and increased for girls, indicating that girls experienced more negative aspects of wellbeing. Still, the researchers concluded that overall wellbeing decreased for both.

Finally, researchers caution that because the study used self-reported data and only social media interactions on school days were recorded, the associations between social media and wellbeing may have been underestimated.

The Takeaway for Parents

In response to these initial findings, the authors suggest that parents need to become more digitally literate. They also suggest that parents need to teach their kids how to interact with social media in a positive way.

For instance, girls need to realize that they should not compare their lives with what they see online. Instead, they need reminded that many times people are posting only the positive or exciting aspects of their lives. If girls start comparing their lives to what they see online, they may falsely assume that their peers are leading more exciting lives than they are, which can lead to unhappiness. 

Overall, Dr. Booker says she does not want people to assume the worst about social media. But instead to help set limits on use especially during the younger years.  In an interview, she said "I don't want people to come away with the idea that social media is bad, just that increased use at a young age may be detrimental for girls."

How to Protect Your Tween From Adverse Effects of Social Media

So how do you protect your kids from risks of social media? The best course of action is to establish some guidelines regarding social media use as well as have ongoing conversations with your kids about what is happening online. Here are some other suggestions that will help your child maintain a healthy relationship with social media

  • Limit your child's social media use. No teen or tween should have unlimited access to social media. There are countless studies indicating how long hours spent online can be detrimental to your child's mental health as well physical health. Be sure you have established guidelines and limitations for your kids. Then, be sure they are following them. This is an area where you should be diligent in setting limits. In fact, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that when parents monitor a child's media use, it can have a positive impact on his academic, social, and physical outcome. As a result, taking time to think through how to set limits is worth the time and effort.
  • Stick to the guidelines offered by social media companies. Most companies require that a young person be at least 13-years-old before establishing an account on the social media network. Yet, parents often allow their kids to bypass these guidelines and set up accounts when they are as young as 10 years old.  If you want to protect your tween's future mental health, be sure you abide by all established guidelines. And when none exist, establish some of your own. Prohibiting your tween from having social media accounts until she is emotionally ready to handle the responsibility is the best course of action.
  • Teach your child digital etiquette. Most kids have social media accounts and spend a lot of time interacting with others online. Be sure you have talked with your teen about how to treat others online. Digital etiquette is an important part of digital literacy. Be sure you have regular conversations about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Failing to have these conversations can lead to kids abusing technology, harassing others or even put them at risk for cyberbullying. Remember, your kids are more likely to behave appropriately online when they have a clear understanding of what is expected of them.
  • Talk to your kids about leveraging social media to their benefit. As Dr. Booker concluded in her research, social media is not a bad thing. In fact, if used properly there are many benefits, even to teenagers. Aside from connecting your teen to others and helping establish a sense of community online, social media can be used to help build a solid online reputation that prospective colleges and employers might find interesting and helpful. For instance, your teen can use social media to showcase her accomplishments and to interact with people that share her passions. In fact, one of the most important aspects of digital literacy in kids is their ability to curate content. In other words, the articles, photos and videos that they post, share or comment on say something about who they are. Be sure your teen understands this. 
  • Discuss the risks of cyberbullying. No matter who your teen is or what type of person she is, she is at risk for cyberbullying if she has a social media account. For this reason, it is very important that parents discuss the risks associated with social media and establish some guidelines not only for social media use, but some online safety rules as well. Additionally, it is always a good idea to talk with teens about what to do and how to respond should they experience cyberbullying, online trolls or shaming of any type. Left unaddressed, this type of experience can have serious consequences.

A Word From Verywell

There is no doubt that social media is here to stay. As a result, it is very important for parents to understand this and help educate their kids on both benefits and the pitfalls. Trying to eliminate or prohibit social media completely is not a wise course of action. In the end, it is better that your kids learn how to manage social media while you are there to help them rather than just prohibiting it until they are out of the house. Although it may require a little work, you will be thankful that you invested the time and the effort into helping your teen navigate the world of social media.

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Article Sources
  • Cara L. Booker, Yvonne J. Kelly, Amanda Sacker. Gender differences in the associations between age trends of social media interaction and well-being among 10-15 year olds in the UK. BMC Public Health, 2018; 18 (1). DOI: 10.1186/s12889-018-5220-4
  • Gentile, D., Reimer, R., Nathanson, A., Walsh, D., and J. Eisenmann. "Protective Effects of Parental Monitoring of Children’s Media Use: A Prospective Study." JAMA Pediatrics. 2014. 168(5):479-84.