Study: Social Media Didn’t Cause Teens’ Pandemic Stress

Verywell Health / Theresa Chiechi

Key Takeaways

  • A new study did not find evidence of a direct link between teens’ increased use of social technology during the COVID-19 pandemic and changes to their well-being.
  • Although the teens showed more problematic social technology behaviors overall, these behaviors were not necessarily linked to increased social anxiety, loneliness, or depression.
  • Social technology can have a negative impact on any person’s well-being, but it can also be beneficial. The outcome depends on many factors and can’t be predicted just by looking at how often a person uses social media.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have relied on social media for entertainment, getting information, and communicating with loved ones.

Using social media more often than normal may have been worrisome for some people, given our already tech-centered lives. The trend has been especially noticeable among young people.

A recent study published in Technology, Mind, and Behavior found that while problematic social technology behaviors have increased in teens during the pandemic, higher use was not related to decreased well-being.

For the study, the researchers analyzed the social technology behaviors of nearly 600 middle school students in the United States before and during the pandemic.

The goal of the research was to see whether teens’ social media use was associated with outcomes related to their well-being.

The study found that while social anxiety, loneliness, and depression did become more prevalent in teens during the pandemic, there was no evidence that the increased use of social technologies was the cause.

Social Media: Not All Bad or Good

It’s commonly assumed that teens’ well-being is negatively affected by their social media use, but experts point out that there are times when social technologies can be beneficial.

Rachelle Scott, MD, medical director of mental health at Eden Health, told Verywell that it makes sense that we’d be worried about teens, as their “brains are still forming” and they are “going through one of the biggest transitional periods in their lives.”

What’s more, Scott said that it’s true that “social media usage can cause one or more of a number of harmful effects, such as depression, low self-esteem, loneliness, peer pressure, anxiety, and, in particular, social anxiety.”

The idea of an association between social media use and negative mental health outcomes is common, but it’s not necessarily backed up with consistent evidence.

Most studies on social media and mental health in teens have focused on the negative impacts and established implicit causation. Therefore, it’s difficult to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the two.

Unraveling Cause-and-Effect

Linda Charmaraman, PhD, director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women and an author of the study, told Verywell that many of the teens in their research “showed more problematic social technology behaviors”—like checking social media more often and using it before they went to bed.

However, these teens “weren’t necessarily the same ones who experienced significant increases in social anxiety, loneliness, and depressive symptoms.”

Though, Charmaraman noted that overall, those outcomes “increased as well.”

Despite the theory that social media use is inherently harmful, the researchers did not find that the teens’ social technology use was responsible for the changes in well-being that they experienced.

“There wasn’t a direct relationship between teens’ social technology use and their well-being,” said Charmaraman. “This could mean that teens’ anxiety, depression, and loneliness were less related to their social media use and more to the general stress of the pandemic or other confounding factors.”

Other Factors Matter, Too

While there is some evidence that teens’ well-being can be negatively affected by social media, Charmaraman said the effects or overall experience of the user depend on the context.

There are also many factors unique to each person that matter—for example, how often a person uses social media, the content they view, their age, and their temperament.

Rachelle Scott, MD

During COVID, when teens were being schooled remotely, we saw that playing video games together and having group chats were ways for them to continue to socialize.

— Rachelle Scott, MD

According to a study published in Health Education & Behavior, the link between social media and potential health-related outcomes might not be captured and explained using conventional “dose-effect” approaches.

In other words, a specific frequency, length of time, or emotional connection to social media use is not always associated with a specific positive or negative outcome.

“People aren’t wrong to think that social media can have negative effects on well-being; it’s just that the full picture is more complex,” said Charmaraman.

That said, the research that’s been done so far may not have looked at the whole picture.

According to Charmaraman, “unless a study is longitudinal, there is no way to know whether negative well-being was pre-existing before the social media use or whether it came afterward.”

Benefits of Social Tech

Experts have also highlighted that social technologies can be beneficial for the mental health and well-being of many of us—especially during challenging times.

“During COVID, when teens were being schooled remotely, we saw that playing video games together and having group chats were ways for them to continue to socialize,” said Scott.

According to Scott, “social technologies also provided adolescents with some important respite from the constant news cycle of COVID and related deaths.”

In that sense, Scott said that “social media actually proved beneficial to the mental health of some young people.”

Social media platforms also allowed people to reach out and bond with others in their network without having to see them in person—a crucial element in a COVID world.

As our lives changed, those virtual opportunities helped many people cope with the challenges that followed.

Charmaraman added that social technologies “can absolutely play a role in improving teens’ well-being, during a pandemic or not.”

According to Charmaraman, the tech “can provide a community, especially at a time when many of us have been physically separated from our in-person communities.”

Linda Charmaraman, PhD

My research has found that for marginalized groups, in particular, social media can offer a sense of community that may not be available ‘in real life.’

— Linda Charmaraman, PhD

For example, Charmaraman said that kind of connectedness could “range from shared hobbies to support groups for stigmatized conditions that can remind you that you are not alone.”

However, the outcomes using social media vary across socioeconomic, racial, ethnic population subgroups. That means that the impact of social media cannot be generalized to everyone, everywhere.

“My research has found that for marginalized groups, in particular, social media can offer a sense of community that may not be available ‘in real life,’” said Charmaraman. “It can also offer valuable opportunities for identity development, as well as activism and civic involvement.”

What This Means For You

Your teen’s social media use is not necessarily bad or good for their mental health. The effect that social media use has on a person’s mental health depends on many factors and can’t be predicted by the frequency and duration of use alone.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Charmaraman L, Lynch AD, Richer AM, Zhai E. Examining early adolescent positive and negative social technology behaviors and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. Technol Mind Behav. 2022:3(1). doi:10.1037/tmb0000062

  2. Bekalu MA, McCloud RF, Viswanath K. Association of social media use with social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health: disentangling routine use from emotional connection to use. Health Educ Behav. 2019;46(2_suppl):69S-80S. doi:10.1177/1090198119863768

By Carla Delgado
Carla M. Delgado is a health and culture writer based in the Philippines.