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The Ups and Downs of Social Media

A new study teases out the emotions of social media, finding that teens generally focus on the positive
The Ups and Downs of Social Media

Watch teenagers using social media, and you witness an emotional rollercoaster: they are intermittently ecstatic, furious, envious, heartbroken, charmed, anxious, obsessive, and bored.

Research has begun to zero in on nearly every part of this spectrum, with findings that run from alarming (screen time is linked to depression and suicide) to reassuring (many teens find social media empowering). But for those looking for a clear-cut "good or bad" verdict on social media, the reality is that it's a little of each — but generally a much more positive experience than many parents might think.

A new study finds that teenagers report feeling all kinds of positive and negative emotions when describing the same social media experiences — posting selfies, Snapchatting, browsing videos — but the majority rate their overall experiences as positive. 

Understanding these nuances can help families better grasp their teens’ up-and-down experiences in the digital world, the study suggests, offering new insight on how best to support them.

A Study on Adolescent Social Media Use

In the study, adolescent social media expert Emily Weinstein analyzed surveyed responses from 568 high school students at a suburban public high school in the United States. The students, who were evenly split between female and male, were heavier users of social media than the average American teen: 98 percent said that they were online “almost constantly” or “several times a day,” compared to 80 percent of teens nationally. Eighty-seven percent of these students used Instagram, 87 percent used Snapchat, and 76 percent used Facebook.

Teens felt empowered and excited when they shared important aspects of their identities with others. But they also worried about being judged by peers and expressed anxiety over not getting enough likes.

The surveys asked students to check off any of 11 listed emotions that they typically felt while using social media, as well as the emotions they believed their peers felt while using those apps.

Weinstein also analyzed data from 26 in-depth interviews with those surveyed (16 females and 10 males). These students walked the researchers through their experiences on Instagram and Snapchat, describing the content they saw and how they reacted to it.

A Spectrum of Positive and Negative Feelings — with Positive Prevailing

The study found that teens had four main ways of using social media — and although they acknowledged negative emotions from each, most described their experiences as generally positive.  

Teenagers use social media:

  • for self-expression (sharing posts that portray who you are and what you care about);
  • for relational interactions (messaging and connecting with family, friends, and romantic interests);
  • for exploration (searching areas of interest); and
  • for browsing (general scrolling through feeds and apps).

None of these modes of social media use resulted in purely negative emotions, as reported by teens. Each led to both positive and negative emotions.

  • In self-expression mode, teens felt empowered and excited when they shared important aspects of their identities with others, and they enjoyed looking back at their personal Instagram feeds to reflect on how they’d developed over time. But they also worried about being judged by peers and expressed anxiety over not getting enough likes.
  • For relational interactions, teens felt happy to stay connected with peers, and many actually strengthened offline relationships with friends and significant others through social media. They enjoyed keeping in touch with faraway family members, too. But they also felt overwhelmed by the number of messages they had to respond to, and many felt left out when they saw friends posting together without them.
  • When exploring, teens enjoyed learning more about their interests, such as cooking or sports, or exploring new passions, such as activism or gun control. But they also reported viewing distressing and graphic images and stories.
  • When browsing, teens often felt amused and inspired by the different photos and videos they came across. But they also saw things that made them envious, insecure, or sad: a peer with thousands of followers, a deluge of images of attractive people, or even posts expressing appreciation for a parent or sibling, if they personally didn’t have that type of familial relationship.

Despite this variety of emotions, most teens described their experiences in mainly positive terms, found Weinstein, who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Seventy-two percent of the teens reported feeling happy on social media, 68.5 percent amused, 59.3 percent closer to friends, and 57.8 percent interested in the experience. Only 6.7 percent reported feeling upset, 7.9 percent irritated, 10.2 percent anxious, 16.9 percent jealous, and 15.3 percent left out. And 70 percent of the teens described their general experiences on social media using only the positive descriptors.

Just cutting teens off from social media entirely may not be the best solution, since that will likely cut them off from positive experiences as well.

For Families, Helping Teens Ride the Rollercoaster

  • As parents grapple with their own anxiety over teens’ smartphone use, they should keep in mind that many teens are having routinely positive experiences on social media. Yes, teens are aware of negative emotions — fear, distress, jealousy, but from their perspective, feelings of connection, amusement, and inspiration also abound.
  • Families also need to remember that many of these negative feelings are developmentally normal. “Self-disclosure, validation, and concerns about acceptance and belonging are core components of adolescent development and friendship that predate and are present in youths’ digital interactions,” writes Weinstein. And teens’ online experiences often mirror their offline strengths and struggles, so insecurity or anxiety may not stem solely from social media use.
  • Parents should take teens’ negative experiences seriously, especially if their mood or behavior has changed, or if these negative feelings are affecting daily activities. But cutting them off from social media entirely may not be the best solution, since that will likely cut them off from positive experiences as well.
  • At all points, families should talk to their teens about their experiences on social media. Figure out together what exactly they enjoy, and what challenges they are facing. Oftentimes, parents and teens can come up with tailored solutions to unique challenges — unfollowing a certain account that contributes to a negative body image, or refraining from posting on a certain app that leads to anxiety, for example — that still allow teens to hold onto what they enjoy.

The Rise of Smartphones

Listen to a conversation with pyschologist Jean Twenge about smart smartphone use — how smartphones have transformed teens' lives, and how teens who limit their phone use to two hours a day have the highest levels of wellbeing, 

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