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Children’s Social Media Addiction Is Linked to Inequality, Finds Global Study

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Sep 9, 2022

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It wouldn’t be a stretch to argue that social media algorithms have changed how we live. Their impact on shaping the course of our lives is unprecedented, yet one that develops faster than research can catch up. But one sobering analysis shows that big tech’s breakneck speed in optimizing for more engagement is harming the most vulnerable sections of society.

In a paper published this week in Information, Communication & Society, a group of researchers looked at a metric called the Problematic Social Media Use (PSMU)– which refers to a certain psychological or emotional dependence on these platforms — in 1,79,000 children across 43 countries. The study analyzed children aged 11, 13, and 15 using data from a World Health Organization study carried out every four years.

The researchers found a link between social and economic inequality and PSMU. “Results showed that adolescents who were relatively more deprived than their schoolmates and attended more economically unequal schools had a higher likelihood of reporting PSMU,” the paper noted.

Economic inequality is arguably a result of country policy — but it has a substantial impact on social media use, and subsequently, mental health among young generations. The findings then highlight the linkages between big tech and government, where shortcomings in either influence those of the other.

“As the digital divide continues to close in many countries, economic inequalities persist and remain a robust social determinant of adolescent health and well-being,” said the study’s lead author, Michela Lenzi, an Associate Professor in psychology from the University of Padua, Italy.

Previous research has looked at the effects of PSMU in adolescents; one such study across 29 countries found that across the board, PSMU was linked to lower well-being. Another research identified a tool to recognize social media addiction in children, and recommended its use in schools to intervene early. With respect to addiction, some estimates put the number at 210 million people worldwide — and this is only growing over time.

But the present study is the first to draw out the link between country-wide factors in assessing adolescents’ mental health vis-a-vis social media, thereby locating it as a systemic issue that requires policy solutions. “According to the digital inequality framework, the socioeconomic structure of society and the position occupied in this hierarchy can influence social media use and consequently its positive or negative outcomes,” the researchers noted.


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In addition to country wealth, the study also found that low levels of family and peer support were factors driving PSMU — and the situation is much worse in scenarios where the same classroom contained disparate wealth among children. It speaks to how access to social media may be ubiquitous, but its deleterious effects continue to be unevenly distributed. “The problematic use of social media may represent a means to attenuate the negative consequences of being relatively deprived by venting negative emotions or escaping from negative feelings through online activities,” the authors write in their study.

The link between social media usage and declining mental health is well documented. Children, in particular, are at greater risk of suffering from negative self-image issues, suicidal ideation, and other dangerous mental health effects directly as a result of social media use.

The findings also add to a body of research that argues for PSMU to be officially recognized as an addiction disorder. It isn’t officially classified as one yet under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) or other manuals. “… given the lack of diagnostic criteria and the limited amount of high-quality longitudinal research, not much can be said about the nature of excessive social media use and its similarities with known addictions,” as a group of researchers earlier observed. But its symptoms are well-documented: they include negative moods, eating disorders, psychological distress, somatic symptoms, lower school achievement, and more.

Just this week, a group of psychology experts published an article calling for more transparency in how social media companies design their algorithms. The appeal echoed a growing concern over how social media affects users’ body image, ultimately feeding into eating disorders. “The relationship between social media usage and body image has been well-established in the literature; however, social media companies’ use of algorithms may intensify this association, as algorithms provide viewers with personalized content that is often more extreme, less monitored, and designed to keep users engaged for longer periods of time,” the experts wrote.

That the effects of PSMU may be exacerbated in a group of children who already face systemic exclusions calls for a holistic policy that recognizes PSMU as a public health issue.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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