Social Media and Adolescent Health


There are over 1.3 billion young people between ages 10 and 19 in the world today, approximately 1.8 billion between ages 10 and 24, making up the largest generation of youth to have ever lived (Bustreo et al., 2022; UNICEF, 2022). In much of the world, this generation has grown up with the internet influencing their relationships, the way they learn, and how they experience life milestones. A recent national survey of teens1 in the United States found that 95 percent have access to a smartphone, and 97 percent use the internet daily (Vogels et al., 2022). This marks a steady increase in internet and device use since the early 2000s and a major cultural shift (Lenhart, 2009). Excitement about the immense potential of digital technologies for education, health, and entertainment is increasingly coupled with concern about the psychological and intellectual consequences of constant connectedness, particularly during developmentally sensitive windows.

Against this backdrop of ambivalence about the role of social media in the lives of young people emerged a series of revelations in fall 2021 from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. Internal documents shared with the Wall Street Journal, cited internal research on the platform’s potential for harm. While reporting that a majority of users found the networking site Instagram to be either helpful or of no influence on the way they man

age mental health problems, Facebook researchers frankly admitted, “We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls” (WSJ, 2021a, p. 14). Of similar concern was the company’s estimate that 12.5 percent of Facebook users, roughly 360 million people, report that they feel powerless to control their interaction with the platform, checking their accounts constantly, to the detriment of their health, work, and relationships (Wells et al., 2021).

The methods and validity of the company research reported in the Haugen papers cannot be verified, but their publication marked a watershed for Facebook and the social media industry (Duffy, 2021; Horwitz, 2021; Lima, 2021). At the center of this crisis was the perception that Facebook was willing to overlook the risks of their product and publicly misrepresent their internal findings if doing so advanced the company’s growth or market standing (Dwoskin et al., 2021; Lima, 2021).

Social comparison is nothing new, and neither are compulsive behaviors. But the scale to which digital technologies facilitate them is. Embarrassment and rejection are worse when they are broadcast to an almost limitless audience and memorialized in an online record. Escape from the psychological cues that encourage toxic behavior becomes logistically impossible when the trigger follows the user everywhere, all the time, in a handheld device.

How Social Media Work

As the previous chapter discussed, social media can include a range of activities and features that facilitate social interaction online. As such, understanding the potential effect of social media on health must move beyond a reductive understanding of social media as a unitary exposure and recognize that there is a broad range of interactions with social media that may result in different consequences for different people at different developmental stages. The creation and consumption of information, including the creation of a personal profile and the ability to comment and react to others’ comments and to share and associate online, are important features of social media and ones that can be meaningful to adolescents and differently meaningful at different developmental stages. Social media platforms vary widely in their target audience, design, and purposes, making the broad discussion of social media complicated. For this reason, an understanding of platform affordances and how they interact with different developmental ages and capacities is central to this discussion.

In the interest of narrowing how we think of the range of social media functions to better understand the relation between social media and health, affordances refer broadly to the possibilities of action arising from the relation between a person’s goals and a technology’s features; in fact, affordances can enable or constrain certain behaviors or actions (Evans et al., 2017). Through affordances, technology influences but does not determine the possible actions available to a user. Online communication technologies have a range of affordances that shape how people

interact and how they construct their identities and relationships (Treem and Leonardi, 2012). Persistence, for example, is an affordance that refers to the durability of online content. Some social media platforms allow users to create and share content that can be stored and accessed at any time, meaning that information shared on social media can have lasting repercussions.

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