Still, research into a direct relationship between social media and well-being has not yielded much.
“There have been absolutely hundreds of these studies, almost all of them with pretty minor effects,” said Jeff Hancock, a behavioral psychologist at Stanford University who conducted a meta-analysis of 226 such studies.
What’s striking about the new study, said Dr. Hancock, who was not involved in the work, is its scope. It included two surveys in Great Britain with a total of 84,000 people. One such survey followed more than 17,000 adolescents ages 10 to 21 over time and showed how their social media consumption and life satisfaction ratings changed from year to year.
“Only in terms of scale, it’s fantastic,” said Dr. Hancock. The rich, age-based analysis, he added, is a big improvement over previous studies, which lumped all adolescents together. “Adolescent years are not like a constant period of developmental life — they involve rapid changes,” he said.
The study found that during early adolescence, intensive social media use predicted lower life satisfaction scores one year later. For girls, this sensitive period was between 11 and 13 years, while for boys it was 14 and 15. dr. Orben said this gender difference could simply be because girls tend to hit puberty earlier than boys.
“We know that adolescent girls develop much earlier than boys,” said Dr. orbs. “There are many things that could be potential drivers, whether they be social, cognitive or biological.”
Both the boys and girls in the study reached a second period of social media sensitivity around age 19. “That was quite surprising because it was so consistent between the sexes,” said Dr. orbs. Around that age, she said, many people go through a major social upheaval — such as starting college, working in a new job or living independently for the first time — that could change the way they interact with social media, she said.