As part of Children and Screens’ ongoing support and curation of cutting-edge, objective, scientifically-rigorous interdisciplinary research, we invited nearly 140 preeminent experts from 10 different disciplines in 22 workgroups to compile the latest research on the effects of media on growth and development, cognition and mental health in toddlers, children and adolescents.
The resulting findings were aggregated and published in a special supplement, “Children, Adolescents, and Screens: What We Know and What We Need to Learn”, in the highly-regarded journal Pediatrics, released on November 1, 2017.
Subsequent new research has also been synthesized and presented where applicable.
Digital media are woven into the fabric of most young people’s lives today. This social fact raises concerns about the varied impacts of frequent (often ongoing) engagement on social network sites and communicating with peers, family, and others through text messaging and apps. This article distills findings from research focused on digital life’s impacts on youth (especially adolescent) well-being, social connectedness, empathy, and narcissism.
Studies suggest a mixed picture regarding well-being outcomes. Some studies find social media use is associated with increased self-esteem, social confidence, and reduced depression, while others point to lower life-satisfaction and other ill-being indicators. The nature of media use, content, platforms, and experiences with peers are important mediators of outcomes. Digital media positively contribute to social connectedness in facilitating existing relationships and new connections around shared interests and struggles, including medical conditions.
On the negative side, pressures to be always available to peers via digital devices can cause stress. Further, mobile phones can interfere with or undercut the quality of in-person interactions. Connections between digital life and empathic or narcissistic personality traits are unclear. Studies variously suggest that social media usage can be associated with narcissism and with higher or lower empathy scores.
This review suggests further research is needed to understand how, where, when, and for whom digital media contribute to positive vs. negative personal and social well-being outcomes. Research designs that include direct observation of digital media use, consideration of contextual and individual factors, and which uncover key causal mechanisms at play are warranted. The article also suggests a need for investigations of how different educational curricula, school policies, and parenting approaches support or undercut well-being outcomes. Recommendations for pediatricians include nuanced discussions of media usage during clinical visits. For educators and policymakers, well-being issues should be addressed as part of digital citizenship initiatives.
Does “constant connectivity” via smartphones make youth anxious, depressed and/or contribute to other forms of ill-being?
Youth differ in their experiences of smartphones and social media. While it is the case that some youth who are heavy users of social media exhibit anxiety, depression, and lower life satisfaction, it is also the case that youth who use social media are reported to have increased self-esteem and social confidence, and reduced depression. How youth use digital media – the apps, platforms, and activities they engage in – the interactions they have with peers online, and how they respond to their online experiences inform whether their media use supports largely positive or negative outcomes.
How do digital and social media use affect relationships with friends and peers?
Digital and social media positively support existing relationships by allowing friends and family to stay in touch, facilitating communication and closeness in a manner that is convenient to one’s personal preferences (e.g., texting instead of voice calls). The downside to the ability to connect ‘around the clock’ is that youth can feel pressured to be always available, which can interfere with the development of healthy boundaries and a sense of autonomy.
Do social media make young people more narcissistic and/or focused on their own self-image?
Research suggests a connection between narcissism and use of social media; narcissistic people have been found to use social networking sites more often and in more self-promoting ways than less narcissistic people. However, it is unclear whether such social media use actually contributes to narcissism or whether already narcissistic individuals are drawn to social media. Qualitative research indicates that youth are often preoccupied with the potential benefits and/or negative consequences associated with their online self-image and content; this self-focused orientation is largely developmentally appropriate.
- Digital and social media use is associated with positive well-being and social connectedness outcomes for youth, including those related to self-esteem, social confidence, increased empathy, decreased depression, closeness with friends and family, and opportunities for positive, supportive connections via online communities.
- Digital and social media use is also associated with negative impacts, including lower life satisfaction, increased anxiety and depression, pressures to be constantly available to peers, online vigilance with self-presentation, decreased empathy, and disruption of in-person interactions.
- Varied outcomes associated with digital media use are related to the specific technologies/platforms used, how often and in what ways they are used by youth, online content to which they are exposed including reactions from online audiences of peers, and other particulars of youths’ online experiences.
 James, C.,Davis, K., Charmaraman, L., Konrath, S., Slovak, P., Weinstein, E., & Yarosh, L. (2017). Digital Life and Youth Well-being, Social Connectedness, Empathy, and Narcissism. Pediatrics. 140. S71-S75. 10.1542/peds.2016-1758F.
The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.