It’s a phrase that has been uttered for decades by older generations as youth forge their way through the modern world. Today, the phrase often refers to youth’s use of social networking sites. There’s plenty of times I’ve heard older adults argue that relationships forged through platforms like Instagram and Google chat don’t qualify as “real” social connections.
But, in fact, there is solid evidence that social media networking can have positive benefits for young people.
A narrative review published in 2014 looked at the effects of online communication and social media on the mental health of young people. It included 43 studies published from 2003 to 2013.
The body of evidence presented a mixed bag of outcomes. Using social media increased youth’s exposure to harm, and sometimes contributed to social isolation and depression. It also opened the door to cyber-bullying.
But researchers also found social media could help to boost self-esteem among youth and improve their perception of their social support network. It provided a safe place to experiment with identity and opportunities to share personal details about their lives.
Similarly, a 2009 review found pros and cons to social media use among youth. In this article, researchers found that earlier studies painted a more negative picture. Studies in the 1990s seemed to show that the internet motivated adolescents to create superficial relationships online that are less beneficial than real-world relationships, and that time spent online with relative strangers reduced commitment to personal relationships. These factors were seen as reducing both social connectedness and well-being of adolescents.
But more current data revealed the opposite. As the authors put it: “most recent Internet studies have demonstrated that adolescents’ online communication stimulates, rather than reduces, social connectedness and/or well-being.”
A major reason for the change is that in the early 1990s people had to use internet chat rooms and similar vehicles that typically involved strangers. Now, however, the advent of Facebook and instant messaging encourages adolescents to communicate with existing friends. In fact, surveys show that well over 80 percent of adolescents use these technologies primarily for communicating with their current friends.
And much research shows that if we are socially connected to people we like, we experience enhanced well-being. In fact, the studies show that the positive effects of social networking are found most for adolescents who use the internet to maintain relationships with existing friends, and not for those who use it primarily to make new contacts or interact with strangers.
The article reports on research that suggests why the benefits occur. Being online encourages self-disclosure to friends, and self-disclosure promotes close and high-quality adolescent friendships. They also find that the positive effect is stronger for adolescent boys, who typically have more difficulty self-disclosing to friends than girls do.
The take home message is that, like everything else, social media can have both positive and negative effects on youth mental health. Using the internet to maintain and even deepen relationships can enhance adolescent well-being. But it’s important for parents to keep an eye out for isolation, depression and cyber-bullying.