No evidence that social media are harmful to young people

11.06.19 | News
Liggende pike
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A new report challenges widespread perceptions about the harmful effects of social media on young people. The researchers find that young people who thrive in life in general also thrive on social media. Both researchers and the media tend to tar everyone with the same brush, and this is how myths arise, the report concludes.

Young people in the Nordic countries are major consumers of social media. Today’s debate is often about how they spend too much time on social media, at the risk of harm to their psychological well-being. Both researchers and the media tend to tar everyone with the same brush – and this is how myths arise. Accordingly, we need more facts and nuances, says a group of Nordic researchers.

The report #StyrPåSoMe – Er sosiale medier faktisk en trussel for unges trivsel» (‘#SortingOutSocialMedia Does social media really pose a threat to young people’s well-being?’) has been carried out by the Happiness Research Institute on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers, and examines more closely whether there is a link between the mental health of young people and their consumption of social media.

“When you talk about well-being in relation to social media, it often turns into an argument between the technophiles and the technophobes. We need a more nuanced debate,” says Anne Mette Thorhaug, associate professor at the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen.  

Anne Mette Thorhauge
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When you talk about well-being in relation to social media, it often turns into an argument between the technophiles and the technophobes. We need a more nuanced debate.

Anne Mette Thorhaug, associate professor, University of Copenhagen

The main conclusion of the report is that the social media alone are not a decisive factor in the well-being of young people. This conclusion is based upon the fact that young people’s use of social media reflects their social lives and well-being in general. The researchers believe they can prove that young people who thrive in life in general also thrive on social media.

“When it comes to young people, their social lives and their lives on social media cannot be separated. They are inseparably linked,” says Laura Sillanpää, a sociologist at the Finnish Society on Media Education.

Laura Sillanpää
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When it comes to young people, their social lives and their lives on social media cannot be separated. They are inseparably linked.

Laura Sillanpää, sociologist, Finnish Society on Media Education  

Do we have all the answers now?

The report does not make any specific recommendations regarding the time that young people spend on social media. In the opinion of the authors, the available data sets are not yet sufficiently detailed about young people’s time consumption to be able to conclude whether the actual screen time is itself harmful.

The main author of the report, Michael Birkjær of the Happiness Research Institute, on the other hand, recommends that we do not blame the unhappiness of young people on the social media. He believes we should instead focus on the problems of young people in relation to loneliness and lack of parental support, which are reflected in their consumption of social media.

“The most important thing to understand is that young people do not draw a distinction between their lives on social media and their social lives in general.   This is precisely what we can see in the study. It is a point that many in the older generation have not understood, and so we ought to shift our focus: We must take a more nuanced view of who uses social media, how they use them and which media they use. Only in this way can we help those young people who are really unhappy,” Birkjær concludes.

Michael Birkjær
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We should not blame the unhappiness of young people on the social media. Instead, we should focus on the problems of young people in relation to loneliness and lack of parental support.  

Michael Birkjær, senior analyst, Happiness Research Institute