How does social media affect our happiness?

Social media has allegedly become the new menace facing young people in the digital era; Ofcom's 'Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report' points out that 23% of 8-11 year olds have a social media profile, a figure rising to 74% amongst those aged 12-15. A seemingly constant stream of media reports highlight the apparent dangers that social media brings about in relation to life satisfaction; with the government's 'Online Harm' White Paper suggesting new policies such as establishing a ‘duty of care’ to make social media companies take more responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of their users, evidencing the general concern that surrounds this issue.

However, a new paper published yesterday casts doubt on the idea that social media has a detrimental effect on the life satisfaction of teenagers. It offers compelling evidence that efforts to curb teen’s screen time are unlikely to make a significant impact on their wellbeing. The paper – authored by Amy Orben, Tobias Dienlinc and Andrew K. Przybylski – argues that most links between social media and life satisfaction are ‘trivial’ when best statistical practises are followed. In essence, the extent to which your son or daughter chats to their friends on Facebook accounts for less than 1% of their wellbeing, with 99.75% of satisfaction over the course of a year being dependant on other factors such as friendship, family life and school.

By analysing responses of 12,672 10-to-15 year olds from a nationally representative dataset, where respondents were asked one question regarding levels of social media usage and gave a further six statements to assess life satisfaction, the authors were able to distinguish between ‘within-person effects’ (tracking an individual and what affects them over time) and ‘between person effects’ (comparing different people at the same point). This methodology goes some way in explaining the insights the conclusion reached, combined with the large dataset. It allowed them to determine whether social media does genuinely reduce life satisfaction amongst users with greater screen time, or whether this assumption regarding the direction of causation was misplaced and adolescents with an already lower life satisfaction simply use more social media. Their conclusions were clear, stating:

‘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 analysed. Most effects are tiny— arguably trivial; where best statistical practices are followed, they are not statistically significant in more than half of models.’

With a growing concern surrounding the operation and role of social media platforms in our society, it is clear that limiting screen time or misguided legislation surrounding social media usage should be resisted. Not only is it a clear restriction on liberty, but as the paper proves it will do little to improve the life satisfaction of teenagers who currently use social media. Having said that, it is clear that further work needs to be done, and as the report highlights, it is crucial that social media companies work hand in hand with the scientific community, providing more data with higher levels of granularity to continue to assess the effects of social media on our lives.