Social Media Might Kind of Affect Life Satisfaction in Teens

Maybe you’ve heard that social media usage is linked to lower life satisfaction. But what does that mean? There are multiple ways social media and life satisfaction could be “linked”:

  • People with higher life satisfaction use social media less than people with lower life satisfaction
  • People tend to use social media more when they become less satisfied with their lives
  • Using social media more makes people less satisfied with their lives

Notice that those are all slightly different statements. The first is a comparison between people: do people who are more satisfied with their lives use social media less? The latter two are about how how social media use and life satisfaction are related within the lives of individuals, but with the causality flipped.

So you see why it gets complicated trying to untangle how social media and mental health influence each other. Recently, a team of researchers tried to shed some light on the situation by analyzing data from 12,672 teenagers.

First they looked at the “between people” question. They found that adolescents with lower life satisfaction did indeed use social media more, but that the effect was relatively small.

Next they looked at the question of how social media use and life satisfaction fluctuate within the lives of individuals.

There are two directions you can go in with this question:

  1. When people’s life satisfaction changes, does their social media usage change later on?
  2. When people’s social media usage changes, does their life satisfaction change later on?

The researchers found that the answer to both these questions is yes, in general. It’s conceivable that people could get in a vicious cycle where becoming less satisfied with their lives leads them to spend more time on social media, which in turn makes them even less satisfied with their lives.

But there’s an important catch. The size of the effect was so small that the researchers described it as “trivial.” Yes, social media usage does seem to make a significant difference in life satisfaction, in a statistical sense, but that doesn’t mean it makes a big difference. There are many other factors that are probably more important – at least for the teenagers who participated in this study, and plausibly for adults too.

Summarizing their results, the researchers describe the effect of social media as “nuanced, small at best.” They do point out that there’s still a lot we don’t know about the mental health effects of social media, and that more research is needed. In the meantime, though, pronouncements that social media is making us all depressed are probably premature.