Social media: What’s not to like? | Science News for Students

Social media: What’s not to like?

Social media can boost teens’ self-esteem — or foster depression
Oct 12, 2017 — 7:00 am EST

Connecting with people online can be easy, fun and almost addictive. But linking up with others in the digital world also can have drawbacks. Users need to recognize in advance that not all online posts will be positive (for you).


This is the first of a two part series

Teens sneak a peek at the internet every chance they get. In fact, the average U.S. teenager spends almost nine hours a day on digital devices. Much of that time is on social media, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. The sites have become important places for students to interact. But sometimes these connections lead to disconnections.

Using social media to connect with others is kind of like having a private conversation in a public place. But there’s a difference. Even when you’re chatting with a friend in the middle of a physical crowd, most other people can't hear what you say. On social media, your conversations can be read by anyone with access. Indeed, posts on some sites are publicly available to anyone who looks for them. Elsewhere, people can limit who has access by adjusting their privacy settings. (But even many private profiles are fairly public.)

Depending on whether people notice your posts — and how positively they respond — your online interactions may be quite positive. Or not. Social media can make some teens feel depressed and isolated. They can feel cut out of social interactions. They may feel judged. In fact, people who visit social media sites to feel connected to friends may end up caught in online drama, or even cyber-bullying.

But being glued to your phone or engrossed in a Snapchat story isn’t all bad. Social media provides an important place for people to connect. The feedback that users get from their peers can boost self-esteem. And social media can even boost relationships among family members.

A filtered view

The average teen has about 300 online friends. When people post to their social media account, they’re speaking to that large audience — even if their posts aren't publicly available. That same audience can see the responses other people provide through comments or “likes.”

teen selfie
Teens are more likely to share only pictures showing good experiences — such as playing around or hanging out with friends.

Those likes and comments influence the kinds of posts teens put up — and leave up. A 2015 study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University in University Park found that teens were more likely than adults to remove Instagram posts within 12 hours of posting. They took down posts that had few likes or comments. This suggests that teens try to make themselves look good by only keeping up popular posts.

Peer feedback plays a big role in how teens view themselves and each other, note Jacqueline Nesi and Mitchell Prinstein. These psychologists at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill study how teens use social media.

More than adults do, teens present idealized versions of themselves online, the researchers find. Teens may only share photos that show them having fun with friends, for example. This filtered view of their lives makes others believe all is well — even when it's not.

All teens compare themselves to others. That's an important part of figuring out who you are as you grow up. But social media makes this experience more extreme. You can actually measure how popular a person or a photo is, for example. And those carefully crafted profiles can make it feel like everyone else is living a better life than you are.

Students’ use of social media “may form distorted perceptions of their peers,” Nesi says. Teens compare their own messy lives to the highlight reels that their peers present. This can make life feel unfair.

Such comparisons can be a problem, especially for unpopular people.

In a 2015 study of eighth- and ninth-graders, Nesi and Prinstein found that many teens who used social media experienced symptoms of depression. That was particularly true for those who were unpopular. Nesi speculates that unpopular teens may be more likely than popular kids to make “upward” comparisons. Those are comparisons with someone who seems better in some way — more popular, for example, or wealthier.

Those findings fit with previous studies that found unpopular teens get less positive feedback on their posts. That may happen because they simply have fewer real-life friends — and therefore fewer online connections. Or it may have to do with the types of things those teens post. Other researchers have found that unpopular teens write more negative posts than their peers. These people are more likely to post about unhappy events (such as having a phone stolen) than happy ones. Together, these factors can lead to low self-esteem and symptoms of depression.

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Bad idea
Sometimes the feedback we get from a post will make us wish we never reached out in the first place. It can even lower our self-esteem.

More popular teens, however, don’t tend to become depressed or lose self-esteem. “They are more likely to make 'downward' comparisons with others, feeling superior to those whose profiles they review,” Prinstein says. “Fair or not, they tend to have more online friends and more activity on their feeds, making them feel popular online too.”

Prinstein urges teens to get help for friends who seem depressed. “Teens who seem to be sad or irritable for a period of two weeks or more may be experiencing depression,” he says. This is especially true if they’ve also lost interest in activities that used to be fun, or if their sleeping or eating habits also have changed.

It’s important for students who notice a friend acting this way to encourage that friend to get help. “One of five girls and young women will experience a major depressive episode by the age of 25,” Prinstein says. “Almost one in 10 will seriously consider suicide before they graduate high school,” he adds.

A place to connect

Social media sites are important places to socialize, observe Alice Marwick and danah boyd. Marwick is a culture and communications researcher at Fordham University in New York City. boyd is a social media researcher at Microsoft Research, also in New York.

The two interviewed hundreds of teens from across the United States. Since teens spend so much of each day connecting online, many adults worry that kids no longer know how to communicate in person. In fact, boyd and Marwick found the opposite was true.

social media bubbles on a table
Social media sites offer an important place for teens to stay connected with their friends.

Teens want to hang out together, boyd says. Social networks let them do that, even when their lives are too busy — or too restricted — to meet up in person. Even teens who have the time and freedom to hang out with their friends may have a hard time finding places to do so. Teens used to head to malls, movie theaters or parks. But many of these places discourage kids from hanging out. Changes like these make it much harder for teens to keep up with each others’ lives. Social media can help to fill that gap.

But, the researchers add, there are important differences between hanging out on social media and spending time together in person.

Unlike a face-to-face conversation, online interactions can stick around. Once you post something, it’s out there for the long term. Even posts you delete aren’t always gone for good. (Think you're in the clear with Snapchat, where every post disappears after 10 seconds? Not necessarily. Those temporary posts may stick around if someone takes a screenshot before they vanish.)

Depending on someone’s privacy settings, certain social media posts can be visible to anyone who scrolls or clicks around enough. Sites such as Facebook are also searchable. Some users may be able to easily share a post you make, spreading it beyond your control. And teens (and adults) who connect with people from different areas of their lives might run into awkward moments — like when a friend leaves a joking comment on your post that your grandmother doesn’t find funny at all.

Online ‘drama’

Those features can lead to what teens might call “drama.” Marwick and boyd define drama as conflict between people that is performed in front of an audience. Social media seems to turn up the drama. That’s because others can watch the performance simply by hopping online. And they can encourage that drama by liking particular posts or comments.

cyber bullying
Teens use the term “drama” to describe many kinds of interactions, including cyber bullying.

Online drama, and the attention it attracts, can be hurtful. But the teens that boyd and Marwick interviewed usually did not call these interactions “bullying.”

“Drama is a word that teens use to encompass a lot of different behaviors,” Marwick says. “Some of these behaviors might be what adults call bullying. But others are pranks, jokes, entertainment.” Bullying, she notes, takes place over a long time and involves one teen exerting power over another.

Calling these behaviors drama “is a way for teens to avoid the language of bullying,” she notes. Bullying creates victims and perpetrators. Teens don't want to be seen as either. Using the term “drama” removes those roles. It “allows them to save face even when drama is hurtful,” Marwick says.

Such hurtful interactions can lead to depression, long-term mental-health problems or even suicide. Teens use the word “drama” to minimize serious behavior by their peers. So it's important for both adults and other teens to listen when teens talk about drama, Marwick says. Recognizing bullying — and stopping it — might just save a life.

Keeping it in the family

Social media is not just for teens, of course. People of all ages interact on Facebook, Snapchat and more. Indeed, many teens “friend” family members, including their parents, notes Sarah Coyne. She is a social scientist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Such online relationships can actually improve family dynamics at home, she observes.

social media family
Teens who interact with their parents on social media have stronger relationships with their families.

In one 2013 study, Coyne and her colleagues interviewed families with at least one 12- to 17-year-old. Interviewers asked about each family member’s social-media use. They asked how often family members communicated with each other on these sites and how connected each felt to the others. They also probed other behaviors. For instance, how likely were the participants to lie or cheat? Did they try to hurt people with whom they were angry? And how likely they were to make kind gestures online toward family members.

About half of these teens connected with their parents on social media, it turns out. Most didn’t do so every day. But any social-media interaction made teens and parents feel more connected. This may be because families could respond to posts with likes or words of encouragement, Coyne says. Or perhaps social media gave parents a more in-depth look at their children’s lives. That helped parents better understand their kids and what they were going through.

This sense of connection might have other benefits, too. Teens who connected with their parents online were more likely to help out family members. They were less likely to lash out at them when angry. And kids were less likely to feel depressed or to attempt to lie, cheat or steal.

The relationship between online connections and better behavior is a correlation, Coyne points out. That means she doesn’t know what causes what. It’s possible that friending their parents makes teens behave better. Or perhaps teens that friend their parents are already better-behaved.

Using social media can have real benefits, Prinstein says. It lets us connect with new friends and stay in touch with old ones. Both of these activities can make other people like us more, he says. And that “has been shown to have long-term benefits for our happiness and success.”

Unfortunately, many people tend to get caught up in other aspects of social media. They focus on how many likes or shares they have, or how many people see their posts, Prinstein says. We use these numbers to measure our status. “Research shows that this kind of popularity leads to negative long-term outcomes,” he says. Studies that measure changes in behavior over time suggest that people who are too focused on these measures of popularity can begin to drink or use drugs. They can become more aggressive. And they're unhappier in their relationships, he says.

It's easy to get dragged into the drama and other negative aspects of social media. But between strengthening family ties, boosting self-esteem and maintaining friendships, there’s a lot to like about these online interactions.

Next: The power of ‘like’

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

aggressive     (n. aggressiveness) Quick to fight or argue, or forceful in making efforts to succeed or win.

behavior     The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.

bullying     (v. to bully) A group of repeated behaviors that are mean-spirited. They can include teasing, spreading rumors about someone, saying hurtful things to someone and intentionally leaving someone out of groups or activities. Sometimes bullying can include attacks using violence (such as hitting), threats of violence, yelling at someone or abusing someone with violent language. Much bullying takes place in person. But it also may occur online, through emails or via text messages. Newer examples including making fake profiles of people on websites or posting embarrassing photos or videos on social media.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

correlation     A mutual relationship or connection between two variables. When there is a positive correlation, an increase in one variable is associated with an increase in the other. (For instance, scientists might correlate an increase in time spent watching TV with an increase in rates of obesity.) Where there is an inverse correlation, an increase in one value is associated with a drop in the other. (Scientists might correlate an increase in TV watching with a decrease in time spent exercising each week.) A correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean one is causing the other.

culture     (n. in social science) The sum total of typical behaviors and social practices of a related group of people (such as a tribe or nation). Their culture includes their beliefs, values and the symbols that they accept and/or use. Culture is passed on from generation to generation through learning. Scientists once thought culture to be exclusive to humans. Now they recognize some other animals show signs of culture as well, including dolphins and primates.

cyber     A prefix that refers to computers or to a type of system in which computerized or online communication occurs.

depression     (in medicine) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

digital     (in computer science and engineering)  An adjective indicating that something has been developed numerically on a computer or on some other electronic device, based on a binary system (where all numbers are displayed using a series of only zeros and ones).

dynamic     An adjective that signifies something is active, changing or moving. (noun) The change or range of variability seen or measured within something.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

feedback     A process or combination of processes that propel or exaggerate a change in some direction. For instance, as the cover of Arctic ice disappears with global warming, less of the sun’s warming energy will be reflected back into space. This will serve to increase the rate of Earth’s warming. That warming might trigger some feedback (like sea-ice melting) that fosters additional warming.

internet     An electronic communications network. It allows computers anywhere in the world to link into other networks to find information, download files and share data (including pictures).

media     (in the social sciences) A term for the ways information is delivered and shared within a society. It encompasses not only the traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio and television — but also Internet- and smartphone-based outlets, such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook and more. The newer, digital media are sometimes referred to as social media. The singular form of this term is medium.

network     A group of interconnected people or things. (v.) The act of connecting with other people who work in a given area or do similar thing (such as artists, business leaders or medical-support groups), often by going to gatherings where such people would be expected, and then chatting them up. (n. networking)

online     (n.) On the internet. (adj.) A term for what can be found or accessed on the internet.

peer     (noun) Someone who is an equal, based on age, education, status, training or some other features. (verb) To look into something, searching for details.

perception     The state of being aware of something — or the process of becoming aware of something — through use of the senses.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

psychologist     A scientist or mental-health professional who studies the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behaviors. 

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups.

social media     Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, that allow people to connect with each other (often anonymously) and to share information.

social network     Communities of people (or animals) that are interrelated owing to the way they relate to each other. In humans, this can involve sharing details of their life and interests on Twitter or Facebook, or perhaps belonging to the same sports team, religious group or school.

symptom     A physical or mental indicator generally regarded to be characteristic of a disease. Sometimes a single symptom — especially a general one, such as fever or pain — can be a sign of any of many different types of injury or disease.


Journal: J. Nesi & M.J. Prinstein. “Using social media for social comparison and feedback-seeing: Gender and popularity moderate associations with depressive symptoms.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Published online April 23, 2015. doi:10.1007/s10802-015-0020-0.

Meeting: J.Y. Jang et al. “Generation like: comparative characteristics in Instagram.” CHI meeting, April 18-23, 2015. Seoul, Republic of Korea. Doi: 10/1145/2702123.2702555.

Journal: A. Marwick & d. boyd. “‘It’s just drama’: teen perspectives on conflict and aggression in a networked era.” Journal of Youth Studies. Published online April 4, 2014. doi: 10.1080/13676261.2014.901493.

Journal: S.M. Coyne et al. “A friend request from dear old dad: Associations between parent-child social networking and adolescent outcomes.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. Published online July 11, 2013. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0623.