Conversations with Mimi Ito and Stephen Schueller: Beneficial aspects of social media use among children and adolescents

While it feels like social media has been around for an eternity, the truth is that it’s still a fairly recent technology. That means that we are only beginning to understand how it affects its users on individual  and group levels. Even less is understood about how children, teens, and tweens interact with platforms such as TikTok, Twitter, and Snapchat. Fortunately, researchers are beginning to address the paucity of information. SCINQ discussed the findings of a recent report (Youth Connections for Wellbeing) on social media use with its authors from the University of California, Irvine, Mini Ito and Stephen Schueller.

Why was this review of social media and mental health literature undertaken?

Stephen Schueller: Social media is continuing to evolve and the way people are using it, especially youth continues to change. As such, the research on social media and its relationship to mental health continues to evolve. Our review was focused on understanding the general trends in the literature but also very much identifying what are the current gaps especially as we try to use the literature to understand the current ways social media is being used and how that might impact youth mental health.

Different social media platforms offer vastly different experiences by design. Does the current literature reflect that diversity? How granular does the current literature get?

Mimi Ito: Unfortunately, many studies that have gotten a lot of attention treat social media platforms and usage as one category. Often quantitative studies aren’t designed in ways that differentiate between platforms and varied ways that teens engage. Many of my colleagues in cultural anthropology and youth studies have conducted qualitative studies of how different communities and populations of youth use social media in varied ways.

For example, teens who are activists, or have a passionate interest in a type of music, an online game, or a fandom like Harry Potter fandom will go online to connect with communities of interest. Other youth might prefer to text with their friends from school. With the report, we are trying to bring together insights from different fields and different ways of studying the problem so we can get a picture of what’s happening that is both more complete and more nuanced.

Stephen Schueller: The research has often lagged behind the technology, especially for youth who are early adopters of new technologies, especially social media. Many of the studies (especially the quantitative ones), use gross metrics to be able to draw conclusions and make comparisons, using measures like “screen time” which might make more sense in the context of older media (like TV shows or movies) but is less meaningful in the context of social media where people continually switch back between creating and absorbing content.

Dr. Mimi Ito

Does each adolescent age group approach and interact with social media differently? Do they interact with the different platforms in a unique way?

Stephen Schueller: We definitely see differences in how adolescents in different age groups interact with social media. Given how quickly social media is changing it’s hard to disentangle the cohort from developmental differences.

Mimi Ito: Older teens often use platforms that are designed for adults, but the youth in the 8-12 age range tend not to have platforms that are really well suited to them. The official policy is that they are not supposed to be using grown-up platforms and are excluded from “mature” media, but the reality is that by the age of 10 or earlier, kids are often looking to teens for social cues. They are outgrowing media designed explicitly for children, are making their own media choices, and are seeking some independence from parents. But there are also not ready to be full participants in grown-up social spaces. Policies like COPPA that exclude kids under the age of 12 from most social media platforms are well-intentioned. But it has meant that the platforms don’t design for that transition from childhood to adulthood. We don’t have the equivalent of “PG” spaces on social media platforms.

The research has often lagged behind the technology, especially for youth who are early adopters of new technologies, especially social media.

For most people who don’t read research papers on mental health and social media, the association between screen time and mental health issues like depression is common. Is this actually the case? Where does it have its origins?

Stephen Schueller: Some early studies found some associations between some forms of technology use (like social media) and rates of mental health issues (such as depression). The challenges with these findings are first, they are largely correlational (and so they cannot determine what is leading to that association) and second, as noted earlier, screen time doesn’t mean the same thing in social media as it did in technologies such as television or even older video games, where people consume content rather than consume and create.

Dr. Stephen Schueller

The report paints a fairly positive picture of the ways social media can influence an adolescent’s mental health. Can you discuss the opportunities social media offers for supporting adolescents?

Stephen Schueller: Social media can help build relationships, offer opportunities to build skills in digital literacy, and open doors for learning and other aspects of civic engagement.

Mimi Ito: Social media can be particularly valuable for teens who might be marginalized in their schools or local community because they have different interests, or are marginalized due to their background or identity.

Research has shown that socially vulnerable teens often report that they get the most benefit out of their online connections. In addition, due to COVID, all of us have become more appreciative of how online connections can be a vital part of social support when we aren’t able to connect in person.

Teens, COVID or not, are generally living apart from their best friends and romantic partners, and lack mobility and privacy in physical space that adults enjoy. They have always had to rely on social and online media to have private conversations and connections with people they care deeply about. COVID has given adults this experience as well.

The report avoids discussions about cyberbullying and other harmful aspects of spending extended amounts of time online. Why?

Mimi Ito: We feel that these topics have been over-represented in media coverage to date, in ways that suggest that the technology is driving these problems. For example, bullying is a problem that we have a lot of existing knowledge about, and we feel that technology can be used to amplify as well as mitigate this problem. Bullying is not something that started with social media.

Social media can be particularly valuable for teens who might be marginalized in their schools or local community…

One sentence, in particular, stands out from the report. “Adolescents online risks often mirror offline vulnerabilities.” Can you discuss this?

Stephen Schueller: I see two aspects of this. (1) There is not a clean divide between online and offline life. Youth often take their offline life, online. This helps explain some of the relationships we see between social media and mental health. Youth who experience depression tend to engage in processes of negative social comparisons. Online spaces make it even easier for these youth to do this especially because many people present their best selves and best lives on social media (“Everyone looks good in the highlights”. (2) The vulnerabilities that exist in offline spaces also exist in online spaces. We often see some groups preferring private or closed groups because their voices tend to be drowned out or marginalized in open groups. Algorithms or norms are often created with the majority in mind.

Mimi Ito: It is tempting to blame the technology or media for troubles that youth may be having. More often than not, it is familiar and difficult problems such as poverty, racism, instability, and family or relational problems that drive youth mental health risks. Technology can amplify those risks, but it can also help mitigate them.

What can concerned parents do? Is there a point that is too far or too intrusive into an adolescent’s privacy?

Stephen Schueller: (1) Get educated, use the social media platforms your children use (and I don’t mean snoop on them but so you understand the features and interactions), (2) use social media as teaching opportunities, youth are still developing and learning social and emotional skills (how to relate to people, how to disengage from things when necessary), these skills can be taught through social media and social media use. Instead of thinking about social media as all good or all bad and therefore something that could be used or avoided think about what responsible and appropriate use looks like.

Similar to the point around online mirroring offline in vulnerabilities, a similar principle could be applied here in terms of too intrusive. It would be too intrusive for a parent to follow around an adolescent all the time to observe their interactions with a particular peer but is not to ask about how a relationship is going with a particular person. Similarly, complete surveillance, although possible with technology, does not allow adolescent opportunities and space to develop autonomy and trust.

Mimi Ito: More often than not, parents are given the message that their job is to monitor and control technology use. I try to encourage parents to try to prioritize connection over control. Social and digital media is something that can connect families if parents can take a stance that is more curious and less judgemental. In fact, most parents actually report seeing digital media as a positive source of connection in their family, but often the media and the public discourse makes them feel guilty when they are not limiting or monitoring.

What were the main gaps and priorities your review identified?

Stephen Schueller: A lot of this work (and even the way technology is designed, so this might be then filtering into the research) is focused on the majority. We know a lot more about higher SES, white adolescents but a lot less about ethnic and racial minorities and lower SES adolescents. Technology is often talked about as a greater equalizer with the potential to overcoming disparities but at this point, that’s often an unmet promise.

Finally, what is next for you in terms of research?

Stephen Schueller: We’re working with different projects to better understand some specific opportunities – e.g., Instagram, eSports – in the technology ecosystem that might be specifically valuable to adolescents. We’re also trying to better understand specific technologies out there designed for mental health – e.g., One Mind PsyberGuide.

For more information follow the Connected Learning Alliance on Twitter and Facebook.

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons; UC Irvine

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