A survey shows puberty heightens sensitivity to social media - hang on, puberty heightens sensitivity to everything. 


11-13-year-old girls and 14-15-year-old boys are most sensitive to social media but only marginally so according to a multi-year study. 

Published on Monday academics from the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford University College London and Radboud University Medical Center, in the Netherlands determined that heavy use of social media prompted lower ratings of “life satisfaction” during puberty. 

This makes sense. Adolescence is a particularly sensitive phase for social development, self-perception and social interaction. The biological, psychological and social changes children go through amplify adolescents’ social environment and make them sensitive to how they fit in with peers and society at large. 

Findings from the study showed that life satisfaction dipped during puberty, rose, then dipped again for both sexes around age 19. Again, this might make sense against the backdrop of many rites of passage being encountered at this age. Leaving school, starting work or university life, moving away from the family home. 

The report brings with it the gravitas of both scale and granularity. The academics surveyed responses from 84,000 people of all ages in the UK. Adolescence isn’t treated as a single lump of time but teased out by year and by gender. 

The analysis concludes that the vast majority of teenagers are not negatively affected by social media. A small subset, it concedes, could be significantly harmed by its effects. 

On the flip side survey respondents who reported low life satisfaction spent more time on social media a year later. For some, it seems, social media content acts as a coping mechanism. This factor is often overlooked by academics and legislators who tend to focus on risks to the young and vulnerable without factoring in potential rewards. Rewards may include a heightened sense of connection with people like themselves, increased creativity, and support from others with similar lived experiences. 

Time may skew the results

Time may skew the results. The academics analysed the UK Understanding Society household panel survey that includes 72,287 10–80-year-old participants surveyed up to seven times each between 2011 and 2018. Social media platforms have since undertaken work to protect the young and the vulnerable through guides and advice. 

Whereas the report is nuanced in its analysis of the stages of adolescence it’s less sophisticated in its approach to social media. Hours of use are analysed but not the platforms on which time is spent. Nor is the type of content analysed. 

Adolescents use a wide range of sites and apps for their social media activities. Among 12-15 year-olds Instagram is the app most likely to be used (66%), followed by Snapchat (58%) and Facebook (54%) - according to Ofcom’s most recent data. Girls this age are more likely than boys to use either Snapchat or Pinterest.

The time period analysed ends in 2018. This was the year of peak Instagram aesthetic - the Insta-perfect, the super-filtered, the cult of unattainable aspiration. The trend to set up finstas followed by the uptick in TikTok popularity has seen a more honest, vulnerable, authentic self being portrayed online.

Survey questions examined the length of time on social media but did not examine the type of content users were viewing, publishing or engaging with. 

Puberty heightens sensitivity to everything!

Children experience similar levels of social pressure offline as online. The majority of children aged 12-15 in Ofcom’s study who used social media, or messaging sites or apps, said that they had felt pressure to be popular on social media, messaging or video sharing platforms (89%), with even more saying they felt that people were mean or unkind to each other on these types of platforms (95%). Crucially however Ofcom’s research “revealed that comparable proportions of children felt the same pressures and worries in real life, showing that these social pressures were not limited to social media”. Sadly it appears at this age we tend to be unkind to each other whether online or offline.

Image by Tim Mossholder via Unsplash 

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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