Young people posting daily social media content and in regular contact with internet-only friends could be at risk for poorer wellbeing

Dr Emily Lowthian is a lecturer at Swansea University in the Department of Education and Childhood Studies in the School of Social Sciences. Emily presented her research with Dr Rebecca Anthony, Georgia Fee at a WISERD lunchtime seminar in March.

Online communication behaviours, such as social media use, are often received negatively in the mass media in the context of young people’s mental health. In 2020, the Royal College of Psychiatrists urged for more high-quality research to examine the potential harms and how to harness digital technology, given it is “here to stay”.

Our research with colleagues at Swansea University and Cardiff University has responded to some of the calls from this report by analysing existing data on over 1,400 young people’s social media and online communication behaviours in November 2020.

We analysed the frequency of posting videos, pictures, music, along with how often young people talk with friends (including virtual friends ie, not made, or met in real life), family, and ‘anyone else’, in addition to the frequency of political participation, gaming, and feelings about time spent online.

We explored if the behaviours of young people ‘grouped together’ to form patterns of social media and online communication behaviour profiles. We then investigated the mental, physical, and social wellbeing of the social media behaviour profiles, and identified who may be at risk for each profile by age or gender. Throughout the research, we involved two youth advisory groups comprising members from to help inform our project.

Social media behaviour patterns

Guided by the youth advisory group’s perspectives, we identified four profiles of social media and online behaviours: the Avid users, Midways, Scholars, and Passengers; names were co-created by the young people advisory groups.

The Avid users were a group who used social media the most; around a third were posting pictures, music or videos daily, and the rest were often posting weekly. Over half spoke with ‘anyone’ online daily, and 50% had ‘internet-only’ friends; although 87% spoke to friends daily, and 57% spoke to family daily online.

The Midways had more complex activity, with only 15% speaking to ‘internet-only’ friends and 58% hardly ever or never spoke to anyone outside friends or family. Near half wanted to spend less time online and posted less regularly, but almost all young people had a social media profile.

The other groups included the Scholars, who were a group of young people that engaged in regular schoolwork, news intake, and engagement in political discussions daily or more. They did not post much social media content regularly, and generally wanted to spend the same (47%) or less (40%) time online, but 25% did have internet-only friends.

The Passengers had the least engagement online, with only 63% having a social media profile. Over a quarter had never posted pictures, videos or music. This group was split on their desires to spend more (22%) or less (31%) time online, with around half saying they wanted it to be the same. Around two in three people had never spoken to ‘anyone’ online, and nearly all had no internet-only friends; this group did not speak to friends or family regularly online.

Impact on wellbeing

Avid users had the highest estimate of emotional problems, eg, low mood. This occurred at the same time when the social media behaviours were collected, and again five months later – suggesting a persistent relationship between social media and mental health. They also had a higher average of conduct problems, ie, aggressive, or anti-social behaviours; this persisted five months later, but to a lesser extent. The Midways, those who had complex social media use, were the second highest group for emotional problems, and this persisted over time. However, all other groups had similar levels of conduct problems.

The Avid users were the most likely to have sleep problems. Around 16% were waking up ‘all the time’, or ‘most of the time’ – this was much higher than other groups; they also were the most likely to get less than eight hours of sleep a night. The scholars were the most likely to get eight to 10 hours a night (81%), and the Passengers often had over 10 hours of sleep a night.

The Midways had the lowest average number of close friends (around four), followed by the Avid users (around six); the Scholars and Passengers had around eight. Overall, feelings of being supported by friends was similar across groups – but the Scholars felt the most supported, compared to the Passengers who overall felt the least. For family support, a clear gradient was observed where the Scholars felt the most supported followed by the Passengers, Midways and Avid users.

The Avid users were the most likely to feel lonely ‘all of the time’ and ‘some of the time’; although, the Scholars and the Midways felt lonely ‘some of the time’ to a similar extent. In terms of appearance, the Midways and Avid users had the lowest rating of their appearance.

Who was in each group?

Avid users were more likely to have parents with fewer educational qualifications. Also, girls and older children were less likely to be Passengers – the group with the highest wellbeing – suggesting confirmation with other studies that girls and older children are more likely to be actively online, and simultaneously at risk for lower wellbeing.

Why does this matter?

Our research identifies that certain social media and online communication behaviours may co-exist and have a negative relationship with wellbeing mentally, physically, and socially. Building on other research, we see that posting content regularly (often daily) and talking to internet-only friends seems to be related to lower wellbeing. We are therefore suggesting that young people and their caregivers regularly check-in on their feelings in relation to their social media use and identify areas that may be causing concern.

A small caveat!

Our work only provides associations and cannot confirm a clear relationship between social media and wellbeing. We urge that more work is carried out to understand how young people with existing wellbeing challenges use social media when compared to typically well young people, as we expect there could also be a reverse relationship.

Researchers: Dr Emily Lowthian, Dr Rebecca Anthony, Georgia Fee