Do we really know how social networking impacts youth?

A plenary presentation at this year’s American Psychological Association’s convention is getting a lot of press (in part due to the APA’s own press release). The talk, entitled “Poke Me: How Social Networks Can Both Help and Harm Our Kids,” highlights of the talk, at least according to the press release, include findings such as:


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  1. Teens who use Facebook more often show more narcissistic tendencies while young adults who have a strong Facebook presence show more signs of other psychological disorders, including antisocial behaviors, mania and aggressive tendencies.  
  2. Daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all children, preteens and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders.

 The research nerd in me sees the first statement as more “mild” than the second for one main reason: The first statement simply shows associations.  An association, in teens, between being full of oneself and being on Facebook more often. In young adults, hanging out on Facebook more is associated with being anti-social and having mania. Those statements make sense to me — you can see how those characteristics go together, but there is no indication that being on Facebook causes narcissism, mania (which can result in not being able to sleep and thus being online more), and/or anti-social behavior.
Then, there is that second bullet — the one that makes me nervous and even angry. First of all, what is “overuse”? How many hours constitute that concept? Second, the phrase “has a negative effect” implies that the researcher studied young people over time – and if that happened, how long a time? I would love to see that actual study so I can answer those questions for myself.
Finally, the word “all” – really? Every single child, tween, and teen is going to be prone to anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns by “overusing” Facebook? Wow. Never in my life have I heard a researcher claim that a phenomenon impacts every single person. Think of all those chain smokers that manage to not get lung cancer, for example.
Most of you will probably think that I am being a little too picky here, but I think it’s important to point out how these phrases can mislead reporters. I understand that most reporters are not trained in research – that’s OK. But, to feed them such broad generalizations is nothing short of dangerous and irresponsible. Which, in turn, misleads the public. I will take back everything I say here if somehow “overusing” Facebook causes every single young person mental harm, but until then, shame on you APA.

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One thought on “Do we really know how social networking impacts youth?

  1. Never too picky. Over statements like this make it into the media (thanks for the press release, APA) and then into the public psyche as truths which then drive policy making and practice. Bad research creates bad policy and programming. The study is probably not bad research at all, but shame on the APA for putting it out in the public discourse in such a shoddy manner.

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