Girls who spend the most time on social media at age 10 may be unhappier in their early teens than peers who use social media less during the tween years, a U.K. study suggests.
Researchers looked at social media use and scores on tests of happiness and other aspects of well-being among boys and girls at age 10 and each year until age 15. Overall, well-being decreased with age for boys and girls, but more so for girls. And high social media use early on predicted sharper increases in unhappiness for girls later.
For boys, social media use at 10 had no association with well-being in the midteens, which suggests that other factors are more important influences on well-being changes in boys, the authors note in BMC Public Health.
A pattern for girls
"Our findings suggest that young girls, those aged 10, who are more interactive with social media have lower levels of well-being by age 15 than their peers who interact with social media less at age 10. We did not find any similar patterns for boys, suggesting that any changes in their well-being may not be due to social media," said lead author Cara Booker, a researcher at the University of Essex.
Booker's research group had done a previous study of social media use and well-being in adolescents, but wanted to explore how it changes over time, she said in an email. They had also noticed gender differences and wanted to look more closely at them, she added.
The study team analyzed data on nearly 10,000 teens from a large national survey of U.K. households conducted annually from 2009 to 2015. The researchers focused on how much time young participants spent chatting on social media on a typical school day.
The survey also contained questions about "strengths and difficulties" that assessed emotional and behavioral problems, and researchers generated a happiness score based on responses to other questions about school, family and home life.
Social media use
The researchers found that adolescent girls used social media more than boys, though social media interaction increased with age for both boys and girls.
At age 13, about half of girls were interacting on social media for more than one hour a day, compared to just one-third of boys.
By age 15, girls continued to use social media more than boys, with about 60 percent of girls and just less than half of the boys interacting on social media for one or more hours per day.
Social and emotional difficulties declined with age for boys, but rose for girls.
It's possible that girls are more sensitive than boys to social comparisons and interactions that impact self-esteem, the authors write. Or that the sedentary time spent on social media impacts health and happiness in other ways.
"Many hours of daily use may not be ideal," Booker said.
Digitally literacy needed
The study cannot prove whether or how social media interactions affect young people's well-being. The authors note that compared to girls, boys may spend more time gaming than chatting online, yet gaming has become increasingly social so it's possible that it also has an effect that they did not examine in this study.
Parents should become more digitally literate as well as teach their children how to positively interact with social media, Booker said. Dealing with filtered posts and mostly positive posts may lead to incorrect conclusions about others' lives that lead to lower levels of well-being, she noted.
"I don't want people to come away with the idea that social media is bad, just that increased use at a young age may be detrimental for girls," she said.
More research needs to be done on why and whether this persists into adulthood, Booker added.