Washington D.C: With or without physical separation (social-distancing) due to COVID-19, youth are using social media to connect and support each other, according to a recent report based on youth making excessive use of media.
Three leading researchers have published Youth Connections for Wellbeing, an integrative review paper that illuminates how teens support each other through digital media during times of stress and isolation.
Leveraging their expertise across the fields of cultural anthropology, developmental psychology, and clinical psychology, scholars Mimi Ito, Candice Odgers, and Stephen Schueller discuss the potential of digital media to support youth well-being.
The work underlying the paper was completed prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The physical isolation that has resulted from shelter-in-place orders has yielded a seismic shift, making it even more critical to understand and leverage technology in a way that benefits youth.
The position paper summarises current knowledge and redirects the conversation about adolescent social media use and well-being in three ways that are particularly relevant today:
1. Refocusing the debate over the relationship between youth social media use and well-being to reflect existing evidence, varied youth perspectives and backgrounds.
2. Identifying teen vulnerabilities and assets that may influence problematic and healthy social media engagement.
3. Suggesting opportunities where youth social engagement might mitigate vulnerabilities and leverage assets.
In the position paper Ito, Odgers, and Schueller highlight the need to move beyond the simple question of whether more time spent using social media causes mental health problems in adolescents.
Instead, people should consider the specific forms of social media engagement that amplify or mitigate mental health risks for different adolescents. The team integrates findings from existing large-scale reviews, the voices of youth who have grown up on social media, and a systematic review of digital mental health apps available for youth.
The team finds that adolescents' online risks often mirror offline vulnerabilities. They note that it is particularly important for messages, interventions, and strategies to be targeted and tailored to the most vulnerable youth and those underserved by traditional mental health services.
One student interviewed shared how they experienced a supportive community online, saying: "I think a lot of my mutuals on Instagram, they're very open to being emotionally vulnerable on Instagram, so they'll actually say, 'I'm not doing fine.' I like it because it's a very nice community, just spreading love whether it be through comments or someone will actually say through messages like, 'Are you okay?'"
A freshman adjusting to life away from family shared how online connections made her feel close to them: "My mother just started using Messenger. I taught her how to use it. And so she texts me here and there. She's like, 'Good morning,' or, 'How are you doing?,' and then we FaceTime. Then my siblings, we use Instagram because that's where we're mostly at. We send each other videos and memes, and then we kind of comment just to make our day."
Given the rising rates of mental health concerns among young people in the U.S., Ito, Odgers, and Schueller encourage a sense of urgency in focusing research, investment, and public attention on how digital spaces and tools can be better designed and used to support youth's mental health.