Does social media harm happiness?

19 December 2017

Interview with 

Phil Powell, University of Sheffield

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As use of social media rises, people are asking questions about the link between heavy use and wellbeing. And, in particular, what about younger people amongst whom it’s extremely popular? Georgia Mills heard about what we know from Philip Powell at the University of Sheffield.

Philip - The evidence on this is mixed. The first thing to say is that social media can have positive effects on well-being by decreasing loneliness, providing sources of support for people and even providing a venue to affirm their sense of self-worth by reviewing their profile.

But what we have as well as that is a series of large representative national survey studies that have been carried out across different countries that show a significant negative relationship between the time spent on social networking and people's well-being. We know that these effects are largely concentrated at the top end of use so that people who spend an excessive time on social media, which is normally defined as around greater than two hours per day. Some recent research by scholars at Oxford University has actually shown that at low to moderate amount of social media use can be beneficial and they’ve termed this the “Goldilocks effect.”

Georgia - Okay. Some use is good but a lot of use is associated with negative things, but how do we know that who are sort of less well aren’t just more likely to spend hours and hours on social media because of this?

Philip - It’s definitely a concern and the majority of research is associational that just shows a correlational relationship between social media use and lower well-being. There have been some studies that have looked at how the two things may interact over time, so it’s been shown that changes in social media use are associated with changes in well-being. But that still doesn’t mean that the change in, for example, Facebook usage causes the change in well-being, it’s possible that another variable may influence the two things independently.

In our own research we’ve tried to overcome this by using sophisticated statistical techniques. They are used when we don’t have experimental data but we are able to use additional data that has a one way affect on our outcomes. We can, essentially, estimate the association between social media use and this additional data, which was internet connection speeds from Ofcom. And by estimating the association between those two things and the strength of the association with well-being we’re able to derive as close to causal relationships as possible.

Georgia - And this is still indicating that a lot of use is negative. So what kind of effects is it having on well-being and do we have any ideas why?

Philip - These things include reduced life satisfaction, increased anxiety and depression, and reduced happiness. These are things that can be distinguished but are generally related to one another. The method in which increased social media use may result in lower well-being is likely to be multifactorial. It may involve, for example, instances of cyber bullying, negative comparisons with others, exposure to inappropriate content online. And also through its association with disruption to physical and healthy daily activities such as sleep and exercise and other positive activities for our well-being.

Georgia - You mentioned cyber bullying there. Facebook previously only allowed over 13 year olds to use their site, but recently they’ve launched Messenger Kids, which is a service aimed as just pre-teens. So do we know how social media affects young people in particular?

Philip - The first thing to point out is often children under the age of consent are frequently using social networking sites already. In our own data we found worse effects of social media use on well-being on those that were aged 13 and over, and not at those that were younger and there are a number of reasons of why this may be the case. We also know from separate data that cyber bullying increases over time in the early teen years. We also know that there are increased pressures on children and young people to fit in in the teen years.

Georgia - Social media is obviously a very broad term. There’s lots of different types of social media and there’s lots of different ways to use it, so do we know what kind of different effects different social media has?

Philip - There was a recent survey by the Royal Society for Public Health for 14-24 year olds and they had there participants rank the main social media platform, so that’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube. They had them rank them on a range of health related factors including depression, body image, experience of bullying.

What they found is that YouTube came out as the most positive and Instagram was the most negative, and they don’t actually elaborate on why that may be the case. But we could, for example, hypothesise that because Instagram is a platform that involves user-generated photos, and we know that idealised and filtered photos are particularly problematic for young people’s well-being.

The other thing to mention is it’s been a distinction throughout the literature between passive and active use. Passive use describes things like looking at people’s profile pages and liking, whereas active use involves actively connecting and chatting with people, and it tends to be the passive use that is particularly problematic for well-being.

Georgia - Do we know anything about how social media affects our ability to learn; I suppose specifically with children?

Philip - No. I think there’s a positive research in this area, and this is something that we’d like to look into in the future.

Georgia - It’ll be interesting to see what that says; it certainly makes procrastinating easier. What do we do about this; do we need to do anything?

Philip - There are three main approaches we could take and they’re not all mutually exclusive. The first is that we try to reduce or restrict the amount of time that children and young people, and maybe even adults, spend on social media. The Royal Society for Public Health has called, for example, pop up warnings on heavy usage on social media sites and this is supported by a majority of young people that they surveyed.

A second approach is that we focus on this idea of usage. It’s not the amount of time per se but it’s what people are doing online. We need to generate platforms for social media that encourage active use and discourage passive browsing of information and social comparison.

Finally, there’s the idea that’s supported by places like the Education Policy Institute that we actually have a duty to educate our young people in the safe use of social media and equip them with digital skills so they can cope with problematic behaviours online.

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