Perhaps Facebook should carry a health warning. A study has revealed that the children who spend more time on online social networks feel less happy in almost all aspects of their lives.
The research by a team of economists at the University of Sheffield, to be presented at this week’s Royal Economic Society annual conference in Bristol, shows that the more time children spend chatting on Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram, the less happy they feel about their school work, the school they attend, their appearance, their family and their life overall. However, they do feel happier about their friendships.
Economists found that spending just one hour a day on social networks reduces the probability of a child being completely happy with his or her life overall by around 14%. They found that this was three times as high as the estimated adverse effect on wellbeing of being in a single-parent household – and larger than the effect of playing truant.
The findings are likely to stoke the debate about the upsides and downsides of social media.
More than 90% of 16- to 24-year-olds use online social networks and while most sites stipulate a minimum user age of 13, few apply any checks. A BBC survey found that more than three-quarters of 10- to 12-year-olds have social media accounts. A report by the media watchdog Ofcom found that more than half of children aged as young as three and four use a tablet while one in seven has their own device.
The amount of time that children between eight and 11 and those aged 12-15 spend online has more than doubled in a decade, the Ofcom report found. Teenagers now spend nearly three and a half more hours a week online than they do watching television.
Social networking has altered childhood dramatically in the past decade and is becoming a concern for politicians and organisations responsible for safeguarding children. The NSPCC cited social media as a major cause of the dramatic increase in the numbers of children admitted to hospital after self-harming. The new research, which asked 4,000 10- to 15-year-olds to rate from one to seven how happy they were with different aspects of their lives, reveals that girls are more adversely affected than boys, as online social networking makes them feel less happy about specific areas of their life, in particular about their appearance and the school they attend. Boys were less happy with their friendships.
The research suggests that going online makes children more likely to make negative social comparisons with others.
“The problem with making comparisons in online media is that people tend to portray themselves in an idealised state,” said Philip Powell, one of the economists who conducted the research. “There is evidence that people think other people are happier than them after interacting with them online because we tend to post videos and chat that presents this positive image.”
Powell and his team split the data so that they could compare the effects of going online on children with low and high self-esteem. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they found the effects were worse for those who lacked confidence.
Powell said cyberbullying could be another explanation for links between unhappiness and children’s use of social media. “There’s evidence the longer young people spend online the more likely they are to be victims of bullying,” he said.
However, the economists were surprised to find nothing to support the popular theory that time spent on social networks had an adverse effect on children because it left them less time to do other, potentially more rewarding, activities.
“Our findings show that social media use can be detrimental on average to young people and this is consistent with a number of findings in previous studies,” Powell said. “We can’t say any social media is bad but we can say that the more social media children use, the higher the likelihood that they will be dissatisfied with different domains of their life and their life overall.”
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