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"Goldilocks amount" of social media time may protect teens

New research has found further evidence of the relationship between teenage well-being and online engagement. The study, from Trinity College in Dublin, contributes to mounting international evidence on the dangers of high levels of social media use. 

However, the opposite end of the spectrum isn’t all that better. In today’s connected world, a low social media presence is also associated with poor mental health among adolescents.

These findings support the goldilocks hypothesis – there is a point between low and high social media use that is “just right” for young people. This is the first time the goldilocks theory has been examined in Irish teenagers and young adults.

“Evidence is mounting internationally that online engagement among adolescents may be damaging for mental well-being but the evidence is mixed,” said study co-author Professor Richard Layte. “Our work provides fresh insights on the impact of digital engagement at the age of 17/18 and the results provide worrying evidence of real harms that require urgent action.”

“There is a simple narrative out there that more is worse. It is important to emphasise that online engagement is now a normal channel of social participation and non-use has consequences.” 

“Our findings also raise the possibility that moderate use is important in today’s digital world and that low levels of online engagement carries its own risks. Now the questions for researchers are how much is too much and how little is too little?”

The researchers analyzed the association between adolescent use of online engagement and mental well-being in over 6,000 young people between the age of 13 and again at the age of 17-18. 

Participants reported their time spent online, and what they engaged in, such as online messaging, school or college work, watching movies and listening to music. A young person’s online behavior was characterized by the length of time spent online and online behaviors they engaged in. 

The results showed that high engagement in digital media strongly predicted worse mental health outcomes for both boys and girls. While low use of digital media was associated with worse mental health for both boys and girls and was also predictive of peer problems for girls.  

“This study is novel in that it considers the importance of both time and online behaviors when examining associations between digital media and mental wellbeing,” said Dr Ross Brannigan, lead author of the study and a former postdoctoral researcher in Trinity’s Department of Sociology.

“We found clear distinctions between groups spending similar time online, but differing in their behaviours online. This indicates the importance of considering both time and behaviours online as well as the quality of these behaviours, for example passive compared to active behaviours, or the types of behaviours such as social, educational, entertainment.”

The research team hopes that their work will be further expanded upon to investigate why exactly online activity is related to mental well-being. 

The study is part of the TeenPath Project, a collaborative project between the Department of Sociology in Trinity College Dublin and the Department of Public Health and Epidemiology in The School of Population Health, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. 

The research is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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