There is currently a mental health epidemic among adolescent girls, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have argued that digital technologies are to blame for this, however, empirical reports have been conflicting, with some research highlighting both positive and negative effects of social technology use on teen emotional health.
Dr Jennifer Silk and Dr Kiera James at the University of Pittsburgh are clinical psychologists who specialise in the development of affective disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and suicidality in adolescents. Their research shows that some forms of social technology use, such as texting and videochatting, contributed in positive ways to emotional health in teen girls during the COVID-19 pandemic by promoting a sense of closeness with peers.
Read more about their research: doi.org/10.1007/s10802-023-01040-5
Please note: In this episode we’re talking about the use of social media and similar technologies, and their impact on the wellbeing of teen girls during COVID-19 lockdowns. This includes discussion of mental health crises. Understandably, this may be a sensitive topic for some listeners, so discretion is advised.
Image source: Adobe Stock Images /Mariadav
Hello and welcome to Research Pod. Thank you for listening and joining us today.
In this episode we’re talking about the use of social media and similar technologies, and their impact on the wellbeing of teen girls during COVID-19 lockdowns. This includes discussion of mental health crises. Understandably, this may be a sensitive topic for some listeners, so discretion is advised.
There is currently a mental health epidemic among adolescent girls, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent report from the Centre for Disease Control revealed that in 2021, almost 60% of female high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year. Even more surprisingly, nearly 25% of female high school students made a suicide plan over the past year. Rates of anxiety are also at a record high among teen girls.
Because these increases in mental health challenges began to rise around 2012, the year in which smartphone use became predominant among teens, many have argued that digital technologies are to blame for the mental health epidemic.
However, empirical reports have been conflicting, with small effects and findings based on global retrospective estimates of screen time use, which may have limited accuracy. Additionally, more recent data point to both positive and negative effects of social technology use on teen emotional health that need to be investigated using more detailed and nuanced approaches.
Dr Jennifer Silk and Dr Kiera James at the University of Pittsburgh are clinical psychologists who specialise in the development of affective disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and suicidality in adolescents.
They recently completed a study showing that some forms of social technology use, such as texting and video-chatting, contributed in positive ways to emotional health in teen girls during the COVID 19 pandemic by promoting a sense of closeness with peers. This contributes to an ongoing debate about the risks and benefits of online technologies for adolescent mental health.
They have aimed to better understand the effects of social technology use, defined as social media, video-chatting, or texting, on real-time emotional health in a sample of adolescent girls under lockdown during the initial spread of COVID-19 in the Spring of 2020.
The sudden, dramatic, and near-universal shift toward reliance on social technology use for peer interaction during the COVID-19 lockdown created a ‘naturalistic experiment’, for better understanding the mechanisms through which social technology use may be related to day-to-day emotional functioning in teens. For example, although social technology use can contribute to feelings of rejection and social comparison, it may also promote social connectedness, potentially compensating for lost in-person experiences with peers. This connectivity with peers is especially important for adolescents, as peer relationships play a critical role in adolescent emotional health, especially for girls.
The research team conducted a ‘daily diary’ study to investigate how teen girls’ daily use of social technologies (like texting, video-chatting, and social media) affected their sense of closeness and connectedness with their peers that same day, and in turn, their emotional health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, they wanted to know if using social technologies could improve girls’ emotional health by helping them to feel more connected with their peers.
To do this, they asked 93 12-to-17 year-old girls to complete a daily diary every evening for 10 days in April and May 2020, during which time they were under governor-issued stay-at-home orders and were not supposed to leave their homes except for essential life-sustaining purposes.
The girls reported on how much time they spent texting, videochatting, and using social media that day. Participants also reported on how close or connected they felt with their peers, their feelings of positive emotions, and their symptoms of depression and anxiety that day. The research was primarily focused on understanding how using social technologies might impact connectedness with peers and emotional health that same day, but also sought to understand implications of social technology use on girls’ longer-term emotional health. For this reason, participants were followed up with seven months later to assess their symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The study found that more daily time spent texting and video-chatting with friends improved teens’ emotional health by increasing their sense of closeness and connectedness with friends. More daily time spent texting and video-chatting with friends was associated with fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and more positive emotions that day, specifically through their impact on teens’ connectedness with friends.
A similar pattern emerged when looking at emotional health seven months later. More time spent video-chatting during the lockdown period decreased teens’ symptoms of depression seven months later by increasing their connectedness with friends during the lockdown period. Girls’ daily use of social media platforms, however, was not associated with same-day connectedness with friends or emotional health.
Their findings suggest that more active and interactive social technologies, like texting and video-chatting, can help teen girls feel connected with their peers during periods of social isolation. This may be because texting and video chat technologies may more closely mimic the give-and-take of in person interactions, making them more helpful in facilitating a sense of connectedness. These technologies may have same-day emotional health benefits, like reducing symptoms of depression, with the potential to be sustained for months to come.
These technologies appear to offer safe ways to promote emotional health when in-person interactions are limited or unavailable. Parents may want to consider this information in developing family guidelines for healthy social technology use during and following periods of social isolation like the COVID-19 pandemic.
It will be important, however, to understand whether these effects are limited to the context of the pandemic, or whether the benefits of texting and video chatting on social connectedness and emotional health are continuing after the acute phase of the pandemic.
These findings also speak to the debate about the effects of social media use, more specifically, on mental health, as the team did not find any systematic positive or negative effects of social media use on daily or longer-term emotional health.
The researchers note that:
‘Although girls did not benefit from using social media in the same way they benefitted from texting and video-chatting, we found little evidence that social media was detrimental to teens’ emotional health. This may be because social media use has both positive and negative influences, which potentially cancel each other out, or perhaps because social media is a more passive form of social communication.
It may also be that social media use effects different teens differently based on things like personality, previous mental health experiences, sociodemographics, or neurobiological vulnerabilities, a possibility that we’re looking at in further research.’
Nevertheless, these findings contribute to a growing body of literature suggesting that the simple story that social media is single-handedly to blame for the mental health epidemic is likely an oversimplification that needs to be refined with more high-quality research on the topic.
These researchers, along with their colleague Dr Cecile Ladouceur in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, are now conducting a large-scale longitudinal study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the Teen SCREEN Study, that will delve more deeply into the effects of social technology use on real time emotional health by sampling participants multiple times throughout the day to ask about their social media use, emotions, and mental health, while also collecting objective data about exactly what types of social media or other social technology apps are being used in real time.
This study aims to provide more nuanced information about how specific social technologies contribute to emotional health in daily life among teens. Additionally, the researchers are using functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine if adolescents with different brain profiles are more or less susceptible to the positive and negative effects of social technology use on their mental health.
More research related to this topic can be found on the team’s lab website, linked to in the show notes for this episode, which includes links to all publications from the team as well as descriptions of ongoing studies. Links to the lab’s Instagram and Twitter accounts are also in the show notes, where you can follow the team for more updates.
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