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Researchers have found that using social media makes kids less happy in almost every way

It’s hard being young.
It’s hard being young.
Image: Redd Angelo
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Parents are well aware that the internet has opened up new realms both of discovery and danger. Now, new research from the UK has found that use of social media like Facebook reduces children’s satisfaction about every aspect of their lives except friendship.

Economists at the University of Sheffield used data (pdf) from household surveys conducted in the UK between 2010 and 2014, which included responses from almost 4,000 children aged 10-15. The survey asked kids whether they were members of social networks and, if so, how many hours they spent “chatting or interacting with friends” on those sites on a normal school day. The researchers controlled for a wide range of variables. 1

The children and teens were also asked to rate how happy they felt in a number of areas: school work; appearance; family; friends; school attended; and life as a whole.

The study found that the more time kids spent chatting on social networks, the less positive they felt about school work and which school they attended, their appearance, and their family. They were also less happy with life overall.

Girls were more likely than boys to be negatively affected by social media time, especially in two areas: their attitude to the school they attended, and their feelings about how they looked.

There was just one area in which time spent on social networks had no negative correlation: how children felt about their friends. But it didn’t have a significant positive effect, either.

What is it about use of Instagram or other networking sites that’s making young people less satisfied with life? The researchers didn’t dig deep with individual interviews, but they did suggest three theories about how social media affects wellbeing in people generally—all of which could be at play, and many of which will be familiar to adults as well as kids.

First, there’s “social comparison,” namely looking at other people and rating one’s own experience against other people’s (apparent) lives. That tends to make one feel bad, since people usually to use social media to show edited highlights of their lives.

Another, less subtle problem is cyberbullying, whereby kids—and adults—can find it difficult to escape from taunts or threats even in the “safety” of their own bedrooms.

Finally, there’s the problem of finite resources. Spending three hours in online communities means three hours less time spent doing activities that might have a better effect on wellbeing and self-esteem, like playing sports or hanging out with friends in real life.

None of these problems is specific to kids, but the researchers note that young people are particularly heavy social media users: In 2015, 92% of 16- to 24-year olds surveyed in the UK had used social media in the last three months, according to research cited by the economists.