Adolescents between 11 and 15 years old are the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of social networks | Technology
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Lucía L. (her parents ask that she not be identified by her last name) will be 17 years old in a few months and has had several profiles on social networks for four years. Her favorites are Instagram and TikTok. This year she is finishing high school in Seville and wants to study architecture. She affirms that her applications help her not to feel alone, to continue her relationships at home from the institute and with other groups. But she also admits that they stress her out. “I get overwhelmed if they don’t react to my stuff. And I also follow people I like, but sometimes I see them as ideals and I’m not going to be like them.” A recent study published in Nature Communications warns about this last effect: adolescents, who use the networks the most, are the most vulnerable to its negative consequences and those who are most at risk of losing social well-being and life satisfaction. The girls suffer it before, between the ages of 11 and 13; them between the ages of 14 and 15.
Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist and author of the book The Big Disconnectexplains Lucia’s feelings in the Child Mind Institute publication: “Girls socialize more to compare themselves with other people, in particular with other girls, to develop their identities, which makes them more vulnerable to the disadvantages of all this.”
93% of Spaniards between the ages of 16 and 24 use some type of social network, according to Statista. The main objective is interaction, which is easier for them than the face-to-face relationship. In the apps, teens and young adults test social skills and experience success and failure in hundreds of relationships, but in front of a screen.
Amy Orben, from the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, has wondered if this use of interpersonal relationship platforms brings well-being and happiness. After studying 17,400 young people between the ages of 10 and 21, research published in Nature Communications concludes: “There may be a negative link between the use of social networks and life satisfaction.”
The relationship leads to a vicious circle, according to the study: “Not only can the use of social networks negatively affect well-being, but it is also true that lower life satisfaction can drive greater use of these.”
The vulnerability is not explained by the mere existence of the platforms, but by how they are used at a key moment in the growth of the person. In this sense, Orban explains: “The link between the use of social networks and mental well-being is very complex. Changes in our bodies during brain development and puberty and in our social circumstances seem to make us vulnerable at particular times in our lives.”
Not only can the use of social networks negatively affect well-being, but it is also true that less satisfaction with life can lead to using them more
Amy Orben, researcher at the University of Cambridge
This peculiarity explains the differences in the ages at which greater vulnerability is recorded. Girls are most vulnerable two to three years before them. For Orban, this jump is explained by the fact that these changes in the structure of the brain and in puberty occur later in boys than in girls. However, he believes it is necessary to investigate this aspect further.
In this sense, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at Cambridge and co-author of the study, believes that “it is not possible to identify the precise processes that underlie this vulnerability”. She explains her: “Adolescence is a time of cognitive, biological and social changes, which are intertwined, making it difficult to separate one factor from another. For example, it is not yet clear what might be due to developmental changes in hormones or the brain and what might be due to how an individual interacts with peers.”
The relationship between lower satisfaction with life and the use of social networks picks up at age 19, but this time in both boys and girls. According to the study, it is a stage in which “it is possible that social changes, such as leaving home or starting work, make us particularly vulnerable.”
Esperanza Sánchez is 22 years old, she is from Cádiz and is about to finish Nursing in Seville. She calculates that, when she started the degree, she dedicated about three hours a day to the networks. According to her, she relates: “I wanted to meet people because she came from another city and I felt very lonely. In the end, my best friends have ended up being my classmates and now I dedicate much less to it. I have no time”.
Not all young people will experience a negative impact on their well-being from the use of social networks. For some, it will often have a positive impact
Rogier Kievit, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at the Donder Institute
Rogier Kievit, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at the Donder Institute, an entity that has also participated in the study, warns that the relationship between vulnerability and networks is not a rule. “Our statistical model looks at averages. This means that not all young people will experience a negative impact on their well-being from the use of social networks. For some, it will often have a positive impact. Some may use them to connect with friends or cope with a certain problem or because they don’t have anyone to talk to about a particular issue or how they feel: for these people, social media can provide valuable support.”
In this sense, Bernadka Dubicka, professor of Health Sciences at the University of Manchester and not involved in the study, values the results of the research at the Science Media Center for recognizing the “complexity observed in adolescents”, beyond whether the networks are they harmful or not? As she states, “vulnerability in adolescence is a complex and dynamic process that must consider multiple factors, including the relationship through platforms.” “It will be vital to build on this research to understand both the damaging and supportive role of social media in young people’s lives,” she concludes.
The author of the work agrees: “Instead of debating whether or not there is a link [entre redes sociales y bienestar]Now we can focus on the periods in our adolescence where we know we might be most at risk and use this as a springboard to explore some of the really interesting questions.”
To do this, Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, calls on “social media companies and other platforms to do more to share their data with independent scientists and, if they are not willing, for governments to show that they take seriously fighting online harm by introducing legislation to force these companies to be more open.”
The study published in Nature Communications is not the first to point out the link between social networks and well-being. A previous one prepared by the Royal Society of Public Health with young people between 14 and 24 years old related to these with an increase in feelings of anxiety, poor body image and loneliness.
A survey, published by the non-profit research organization Common Sense Media, ensures that the use of screens among people between the ages of eight and 12 has increased by 17% since 2019 and that the time of use ranges between five and the eight hours.
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