The Grapevine

Can Social Media Have Health Benefits For Children?

It is known that young people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of social media, given how the brain is still developing and adapting. And when discussing its effects on health, the negative ones often come to mind: Cyberbullying, decreasing face-to-face interaction, disrupted sleep, body image problems, and more. 

But can the use of popular online platforms and text messaging ever be healthy for children? Yes, according to new research from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

"The most important thing is that not all screen media is bad if you want to put it in a nutshell," said lead author Dr. Martin Paulus. "There's a lot of pre-existing biases that if we expose kids to media, something terrible is going to happen. What we show is that's not the case."

Paulus and his team analyzed data on 4,500 young participants which included how much time they spent in front of screens, what types of media they were exposed to, and details about their health and family life. 

Among children aged 9 and 10, those who texted and used social media were associated with higher levels of physical activity, lesser family conflict, and fewer sleep problems. On the flip side, children who used more of all general media (internet, television, video games) were associated with negative effects such as family conflict and disturbed sleep.

One possible explanation, Paulus said, was the amplified power of communication granted by social media. 

"They are networked with their friends, they engage in more diverse activities, and in the pre-puberty stage when you don't have all the teenager stuff going on, it truly is building a network community."

Previous studies also explored how online platforms can reduce feelings of social isolation by facilitating communication. Another benefit, noted in a 2016 paper, was how "adolescents’ social media use improved both their ability to understand (cognitive empathy) and share the feelings of their peers (affective empathy)," it stated.

People with social anxiety may benefit from "being able to connect in a way that is less anxiety-provoking," said Dr. Peggy Kern, a senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia.

However, she emphasized moderation as someone prone to the likes of depression or envy may develop a social media dependence.

According to 2018 data from the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of American teenagers report being online almost constantly.

Those who found social media to have positive effects listed reasons such as easier communication with family, meeting new friends, an outlet for self-expression, and access to news. Those who found social media to be harmful stated it was a distraction, worsened mental health issues, encouraged bullying, caused addiction and loneliness, etc.

By the looks of it, social media may simply have varying effects on different types of people. So a one-size-fits-all theory may have limitations, especially when looking at their impact on young brains. It should be noted the new study only revealed an association and did not establish causation. It was presented at the 41st Annual RSA Scientific Meeting in San Diego, California, on June 19.