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Social Media Use and Adolescents’ Self-Esteem: Heading for a Person-Specific Media Effects Paradigm

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Patti Valkenburg, Ine Beyens, J Loes Pouwels, Irene I van Driel, Loes Keijsers, Social Media Use and Adolescents’ Self-Esteem: Heading for a Person-Specific Media Effects Paradigm, Journal of Communication , Volume 71, Issue 1, February 2021, Pages 56–78, https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqaa039

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Eighteen earlier studies have investigated the associations between social media use (SMU) and adolescents’ self-esteem, finding weak effects and inconsistent results. A viable hypothesis for these mixed findings is that the effect of SMU differs from adolescent to adolescent. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a preregistered three-week experience sampling study among 387 adolescents (13–15 years, 54% girls). Each adolescent reported on his/her SMU and self-esteem six times per day (126 assessments per participant; 34,930 in total). Using a person-specific, N = 1 method of analysis (Dynamic Structural Equation Modeling), we found that the majority of adolescents (88%) experienced no or very small effects of SMU on self-esteem (−.10 < β < .10), whereas 4% experienced positive (.10 ≤ β ≤ .17) and 8% negative effects (−.21 ≤ β ≤ −.10). Our results suggest that person-specific effects can no longer be ignored in future media effects theories and research.

An important developmental task that adolescents need to accomplish is to acquire self-esteem, the positive and relative stable evaluation of the self. Adolescents’ self-esteem is an important predictor of a healthy peer attachment ( Gorrese & Ruggieri, 2013 ), psychological well-being ( Kernis, 2005 ), and success later in life ( Orth & Robins, 2014 ). In the past decade, a growing number of studies have investigated how adolescents’ social media use (SMU) may affect their self-esteem. Adolescents typically spend 2–3 hours per day on social media to interact with their peers and exchange feedback on their messages and postings ( Valkenburg & Piotrowski, 2017 ). Peer interaction and feedback on the self, both bedrock features of social media, are important predictors of adolescent self-esteem ( Harter, 2012 ). Therefore, understanding the effects of SMU on adolescents’ self-esteem is both important and opportune.

To our knowledge, 18 earlier studies have tried to assess the relationship between SMU and adolescents’ general self-esteem (e.g., Woods & Scott, 2016 ) or their domain-specific self-esteem (e.g., social self-concept; Blomfield Neira & Barber, 2014 ; Košir et al., 2016 ; Valkenburg et al., 2006 ). The ages of the adolescents included in these studies ranged from eight to 19 years. Fifteen of these studies are cross-sectional correlational (e.g., Cingel & Olsen, 2018 ; Meeus et al., 2019 ), two are longitudinal ( Boers et al., 2019 ; Valkenburg et al., 2017 ), and one is experimental ( Thomaes et al., 2010 ). Some of these studies have reported positive effects of SMU on self-esteem (e.g., Blomfield Neira & Barber, 2014 ), others have yielded negative effects (e.g., Woods & Scott, 2016 ), and yet others have found null effects (e.g., Košir et al., 2016 ). It is no wonder that the two meta-analyses on the relationship of SMU and self-esteem have identified their pooled relationships as “close to 0” ( Huang, 2017 , p. 351), “puzzling,” and “complicated” ( Liu & Baumeister, 2016 , p. 85).

While this earlier work has yielded important insights, it leaves two important gaps that may explain these weak effects and inconsistent results. A first gap involves the time frame in which SMU and self-esteem have been assessed in previous studies. Inherent to their design, the cross-correlational studies have measured SMU and self-esteem concurrently, at a single point in time. The two longitudinal studies have assessed both variables at three or four times, with one-year lags, with the aim to establish the potential longer-term effects of SMU on self-esteem ( Boers et al., 2019 ; Valkenburg et al., 2017 ). However, both developmental (e.g., Harter, 2012 ) and self-esteem theories (e.g., Rosenberg, 1986 ) argue that, in addition to such longer-term effects, adolescents’ self-esteem can fluctuate on a daily or even hourly basis as a result of their positive or negative experiences. These theories consider the momentary effects of SMU on self-esteem as the building blocks of its longer-term effects. Investigating such momentary effects of SMU on adolescents’ self-esteem is the first aim of this study.

A second gap in the literature that may explain the weak and inconsistent results in earlier work is that individual differences in susceptibility to the effects of SMU on self-esteem have hardly been taken into account. Studies that did investigate such differences have mostly focused on gender as a moderating variable, without finding any effect ( Kelly et al., 2018 ; Košir et al., 2016 ; Meeus et al., 2019 ; Rodgers et al., 2020 ). However, these null findings may be due to the high variance in susceptibility to the effects of SMU within both the boy and girl groups. After all, if differential susceptibility leads to positive effects among some girls and boys and to negative effects among others, the moderating effect of gender at the aggregate level would be close to zero. Therefore, the time is ripe to investigate differential susceptibility to the effects of SMU at the more fine-grained level of the individual rather than by including group-level moderators. Such an investigation would not only benefit media effects theories (e.g., Valkenburg & Peter, 2013 ), but also self-esteem theories that emphasize that the effects of environmental influences may differ from person to person (e.g., Harter & Whitesell, 2003 ). Investigating such person-specific susceptibility to the effects of SMU is, therefore, the second aim of this study.

To investigate the momentary effects of SMU on self-esteem (first aim), and to assess heterogeneity in these effects (second aim), we employed an experience sampling (ESM) study among 387 middle adolescents (13–15 years), whom we surveyed six times a day for three weeks (126 measurements per person). We measured SMU by asking adolescents on each measurement moment how much time in the past hour they had spent on the three most popular social media platforms among Dutch adolescents ( van Driel et al., 2019 ): Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. We focused on middle adolescence because this is the period of most significant fluctuations in self-esteem ( Harter, 2012 ). By employing a novel, person-specific method to analyze our intensive longitudinal data, we were able, for the first time, to assess the effects of SMU at the level of the individual adolescent, and to assess how these effects differ from adolescent to adolescent.

Social Media Use and Self-Esteem Level

Personality and social psychological research into the antecedents, consequences, and development of self-esteem has mostly focused on two aspects of self-esteem: self-esteem level and self-esteem instability. Most of this research has focused on self-esteem level, that is, whether it is high or low ( Crocker & Brummelman, 2018 ). This also holds for studies into the effects of SMU. For example, all of the 15 correlational studies have investigated whether adolescents who spend more time with social media report a lower (or higher) level of self-esteem compared to their peers who spend less time with social media (e.g., Apaolaza et al., 2013 , 12–17 years; Barthorpe et al., 2020 , 13–15 years; Bourke, 2013 , 12–16 years; Cingel & Olsen, 2018 , 12–18 years; Kelly et al., 2018 , 14 years; Morin-Major et al., 2016 , 12–17 years; O'Dea & Campbell, 2011 , M age 14; Rodgers et al., 2020 , M age 12.8; Thorisdottir et al., 2019 , 14–16 years; Valkenburg et al., 2006 , 10–19 years; van Eldik et al., 2019 , 9–13 years). In statistical terms, these studies have investigated the between -person relationship of SMU and self-esteem.

The majority of studies into the between-person relationship of SMU and self-esteem used Rosenberg’s (1965) self-esteem scale, which is the most commonly used survey measure to assess general, trait-like levels of self-esteem. These studies asked adolescents at one point in time to evaluate their selves in general or across a certain period in the past (e.g., in the past year). In the current study, we also investigated the between-person relationship between SMU and adolescents’ general levels of self-esteem. But unlike earlier studies, we assessed their levels of SMU and self-esteem by averaging the 126 momentary assessments of both variables across a three-week period. Such in situ assessments generally produce data with greater ecological validity because they are made in the natural flow of daily life, which reduces recall bias ( van Roekel et al., 2019 ). Given the inconsistent results in previous studies, the literature does not allow us to formulate a hypothesis on the between-person association between SMU and self-esteem level. Therefore, we investigated the following research question:

(RQ1) Do adolescents who spend more time with social media report a lower or higher level of self-esteem compared to adolescents who spend less time with social media?

Social Media Use and Self-Esteem Fluctuations

A second strand of personality and social psychological research has focused on the instability of self-esteem. Self-esteem instability refers to the extent to which self-esteem fluctuates within persons ( Kernis, 2005 ). Whereas research into the level of self-esteem has predominantly tried to establish differences in self-esteem between persons, work on self-esteem instability has focused on fluctuations in self-esteem within persons. Rosenberg (1986) distinguishes between two types of within-person self-esteem fluctuations: baseline and barometric instability. Baseline instability refers to potential within-person changes in levels of self-esteem that occur slowly and over an extended period of time. It has been shown, for example, that self-esteem decreases in early adolescence after which it may slowly and steadily increase again in later adolescence ( Harter & Whitesell, 2003 ). Barometric fluctuations, in contrast, reflect short-term within-person fluctuations in self-esteem as a result of one’s everyday positive and negative experiences. Rosenberg (1986) argued that such barometric fluctuations are particularly evident during adolescence, when adolescents typically experience enhanced uncertainty about their identity (i.e., how to define who they are and will become), intimacy (i.e., how to form and maintain meaningful relationships), and sexuality (e.g., how to cope with sexual desire and define their sexual orientation; Steinberg, 2011 ).

One of the aims of the current study is to investigate how SMU may induce within-person fluctuations in barometric self-esteem. Two earlier social media effects studies have focused on within-person effects, one longitudinal study ( Boers et al., 2019 , M age 17.7) and one experiment ( Thomaes et al., 2010 , 8–12 years). Using Rosenberg’s self-esteem scale, Boers et al. found negative within-person effects of SMU on baseline self-esteem. However, because the assessments of SMU and self-esteem were one year apart, and because short-term fluctuations can hardly be derived from designs with longer-term measurement intervals ( Keijsers & van Roekel, 2018 ), this study, although important, may not inform a hypothesis on the influences of SMU on barometric self-esteem.

A within-person experiment by Thomaes et al. (2010) does confirm self-esteem instability theories in the context of SMU. Thomaes et al. based their experiment on Leary and Baumeister’s (2000) Sociometer theory. Like Rosenberg’s theory of self-esteem, Sociometer theory proposes that self-esteem serves as a sociometer (cf. barometer) that gauges the degree of approval and disapproval from one’s social environment. An important proposition of Sociometer theory is that self-esteem changes are accompanied by changes in affect (mood and emotions). Self-esteem (and affect) goes up when people succeed or when others accept them, and it drops when people fail or when others reject them. The results of Thomaes et al. confirmed Sociometer theory: When preadolescents’ online social media profiles were approved by others, their self-esteem increased, and when their online profiles were disapproved, their self-esteem dropped.

In Thomaes et al.’s study, peer approval was experimentally manipulated so that one group of preadolescents (8-13 years) received positive feedback and an equally sized group received negative feedback on their online profiles. In reality, however, peer approval and disapproval in social media interactions are typically not as neatly balanced. In fact, studies have often reported a positivity bias in social media-based interactions (e.g., Reinecke & Trepte, 2014 ; Waterloo et al., 2017 ), meaning that social media users tend to share and receive more positive than negative information. This positivity bias also strongly holds for adolescent social media users. For example, among a national sample of adolescents, only 8% “sometimes” received negative feedback on their posts, whereas 91% “never” or “almost never” received such feedback ( Koutamanis et al., 2015 ). Therefore, on the basis of Sociometer theory, the positivity bias of social media interactions, and the findings of Thomaes et al., we expect an overall positive within-person effect of time spent with social media on adolescents’ self-esteem:

(H1) Overall, adolescents’ self-esteem will increase as a result of their time spent with social media in the past hour.

Heterogeneity in the Effects of Social Media Use on Self-esteem

Most media effects theories that have been developed during and after the 1970s agree that media effects are conditional, meaning that they do not equally hold for all media users (for a review see Valkenburg et al., 2016 ). These theories have sparked numerous media effects studies trying to uncover how certain dispositional, environmental, and contextual variables may enhance or reduce the cognitive, affective, and behavioral effects of media. In the past decade, this media effects research has resulted in an upsurge in meta-analyses of media effects, which not only helped integrating the findings in this vastly growing literature, but also pointed at the moderators that may explain differential susceptibility to media effects.

Despite their undeniable value, the effect sizes for both the main and moderating effects of media use that these meta-analyses have yielded typically range between r = .10 and r = .20 ( Valkenburg et al., 2016 ). Although small to medium effect sizes are common in many neighboring disciplines, some media scholars have argued that such small media effects defy common sense because everyday experience offers anecdotal evidence of strong media effects for some individuals ( Valkenburg et al., 2016 ). Moreover, qualitative studies have repeatedly confirmed that media users differ greatly in their responses to (social) media (e.g., Rideout & Fox, 2018 ). And studies on the emotional reactions to scary media content have reported extreme responses for particular individuals ( Cantor, 2009 ).

There is an apparent discrepancy between the magnitude of conditional media effects sizes reported in quantitative studies and meta-analyses on the one hand and the results of qualitative studies and anecdotal examples on the other. By focusing on group-level moderator effects, meta-analyses (and the studies on which they are based) invariably gloss over more subtle individual differences between people ( Pearce & Field, 2016 ). Diving deeper into these subtle individual differences, however, is only possible with research designs that are able to detect differences in person-specific effects. Such designs require a large number of assessments per person to derive conclusions about processes within single persons, as well as a sufficient number of participants for bottom-up generalization to sub-populations ( Voelkle et al., 2012 ).

An important aim of this study is to capture such person-specific susceptibilities to the effects of SMU by employing a novel method of analysis: Dynamic Structural Equation Modeling (DSEM). DSEM is an advanced modeling technique that is suitable for analyzing intensive longitudinal data, that is, data with 20 to more than 100 repeated measurements that are typically closely spaced in time ( McNeish & Hamaker, 2020 ). DSEM combines the strengths of multilevel analysis and Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) with N  =   1 time-series analysis. N  =   1 time-series analysis enables researchers to establish the longitudinal (lagged) associations between SMU and self-esteem within single persons. The multilevel part of DSEM provides the opportunity to test whether the person-specific effect sizes of SMU on self-esteem differ between persons. Combining the power of a large number of assessments of single persons with a large sample, DSEM may help us answer the question: For how many adolescents does SMU support their self-esteem, for how many does it hinder their self-esteem, and for how many does it not affect their self-esteem?

Not only media effects theories, but also self-esteem theories give reason to assume person-specific effects of environmental influences on self-esteem. These theories agree that some individuals experience significant boosts (or drops) in self-esteem when they experience minor disapproval (or approval) from their peers, whereas the self-esteem of others may fluctuate only in case of serious self-relevant experiences ( Crocker & Brummelman, 2018 ). For example, a study by Harter and Whitesell (2003) showed that 59% of adolescents were prone to self-esteem fluctuations, whereas 41% were not or less prone to such fluctuations. Based on these insights of self-esteem theories, it is likely that the effects of SMU will also differ from adolescent to adolescent. Due to the positivity bias of social media interactions, we expect that most adolescents will experience increases in self-esteem as a result of their SMU in the past hour, whereas a smaller group will experience decreases in self-esteem, and for another smaller group of adolescents their SMU will be unrelated to their self-esteem. Therefore, we hypothesize:

(H2) The effect of time spent with social media on self-esteem will vary from adolescent to adolescent.

Participants

This preregistered study is part of a larger project on the psychosocial consequences of SMU. The present study uses data from the first three-week experience sampling method (ESM) wave of this project that took place in December 2019. The sample consisted of 387 early and middle adolescents (13- to 15-year-olds; 54% girls; M age = 14.11, SD = .69) from a large secondary school in the southern area of The Netherlands. Participants were enrolled in three different levels of education: 44% were in lower prevocational secondary education (VMBO), 31% in intermediate general secondary education (HAVO), and 26% in academic preparatory education (VWO). Of all participants, 96% was born in The Netherlands and self-identified as Dutch, 2% was born in another European country, and 2% in a country outside Europe. The sample was representative of this area in The Netherlands in terms of educational level and ethnic background ( Statistics Netherlands, 2020 ).

The study was approved by the Ethics Review Board of the University of Amsterdam. Before the start of the study parents gave written consent for their child’s participation in the study, after they had been extensively informed about the goals of the study. At the end of November 2019, participants took part in a baseline session during school hours. Researchers informed participants of the aims and procedure of the study and assured them that their responses would be treated confidentially. Participants were provided with detailed instructions about the ESM study that started in the week following upon the baseline survey. They were instructed on how to install the ESM software application (Ethica Data) on their phones, and how to answer the different types of ESM questions. At the end of the baseline session, participants completed an initial ESM survey on their use of different social media platforms, which we used to personalize subsequent ESM surveys. In case of questions or problems with the installment of the software, three researchers were present to help out.

ESM study . In the three-week ESM study, participants completed six 2-minute surveys per day in response to notifications from their mobile phones. The first and last ESM surveys contained 24 questions, whereas each of the other four ESM surveys consisted of 23 questions. Each ESM survey assessed, among other variables not reported in this study, participants’ self-esteem and their SMU. Participants received questions about their time spent with Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat if they had indicated in the baseline session that they used these platforms more than once per week. In case participants did not use any of these platforms more than once a week, they were surveyed about other platforms that they did use (e.g., YouTube or gaming). If they did not use any other platforms either, they received other questions to ensure that each participant received the same number of questions. In total, 375 (97%) participants received questions about WhatsApp, 345 participants (89%) about Instagram, and 285 (73%) about Snapchat.

Sampling scheme . In total, participants received 126 ESM surveys (i.e., 21 days * 6 assessments a day) at random time points within fixed intervals. The sampling scheme was tailored to the school’s schedule and participants’ weekday and weekend routines to avoid that participants received notifications during class hours and while sleeping in on the weekends. Five to ten minutes after each ESM notification, participants received an automatic reminder. We have uploaded our entire notification scheme with the response windows on OSF .

Monitoring plan/incentives. We regularly messaged adolescents to check whether we could help with any technical issues and to motivate them to fill out as many ESM surveys as possible. Adolescents received a small gadget for participating in the baseline session, and a compensation of €0.30 for each completed ESM survey. In addition, each day we held a lottery, in which four participants who had completed all six ESM surveys the day before could win €25.

Compliance. We sent out 48,762 surveys (i.e., 387 × 126) to participants. Due to unforeseen technical problems with the Ethica software, 862 ESM surveys did not reach participants. As a result, 47,900 ESM surveys were received, and 34,930 surveys were completed. This led to a compliance rate of 73%, which is good in comparison with previous ESM studies among adolescents ( van Roekel et al., 2019 ). On average, participants completed 90.26 ESM surveys ( SD = 23.84).

A priori power-analyses. The number of assessments was determined based on the fact that a minimum of 50–100 assessments per participant is recommended to conduct N  =   1 time-series analyses ( Voelkle et al., 2012 ). In order to obtain at least 50 assessments per participant, we took a conservative approach and scheduled for a total of 126 assessments. A priori power analyses indicated that a number of 300 participants would suffice to reliably detect small effect sizes with a minimum power of .80 and significance levels of p = .05.

Time spent with social media . To obtain an ecologically valid ESM assessment of time spent with social media, we asked participants at each assessment how much time in the past hour they had spent with the three most popular platforms: WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat. For each platform, we selected the most popular activities ( van Driel et al., 2019 ). For Instagram, we asked: How much time in the past hour have you spent… (1) sending direct messages on Instagram? (2) reading direct messages on Instagram? (3) viewing posts/stories of others on Instagram? For WhatsApp, we asked: How much time in the past hour have you spent… (4) sending messages on WhatsApp? (5) reading messages on WhatsApp? For Snapchat we asked: How much time in the past hour have you spent… (6) viewing snaps of others on Snapchat? (7) viewing stories of others on Snapchat? (8) sending snaps on Snapchat? Response options for each of these activities were measured with a Visual Analog Scale (VAS) that ranged from 0 to 60 minutes with one-minute intervals.

Participants’ scores on these activities were summed for each of the three platforms. For some assessments this summation led to time estimations exceeding 60 min. For WhatsApp this pertained to 0.85% of all 34,127 assessments, for Instagram to 2.40% of all 31,718 assessments, and for Snapchat to 3.87% of all 26,533 assessments. As indicated in our preregistration , these scores were recoded to 60 min. In a next step, the indicated times spent with WhatsApp, Instagram, and Snapchat were summed to create a variable “time spent with social media.” The summation of the three platforms again led to some estimations exceeding 60 min (i.e., 10.64% of all 34,686 estimations). In accordance with our preregistration, these scores were recoded to 60 min.

Self-esteem. Based on Rosenberg’s (1965) self-esteem scale, and studies establishing the validity of single-item measures of self-esteem (e.g., Robins et al., 2001 ), we presented participants with the question: “How satisfied do you feel about yourself right now?” We used a 7-point response scale ranging from 0 (not at all) to 6 (completely), with 3 (a little) as the midpoint.

Method of Analysis

As preregistered , we employed Dynamic Structural Equation Modeling (DSEM) for intensive longitudinal data in Mplus Version 8.4. Following the recommendations of McNeish and Hamaker (2020) , we estimated a two-level autoregressive lag-1 model (AR[1] model) with self-esteem as the outcome. At the within-person level (level 1), we specified SMU in the past hour as the time-varying covariate of self-esteem (to investigate H1), while controlling for the autoregressive effect of self-esteem (i.e., self-esteem predicted by lag-1 self-esteem). At the between-person level (level 2), we included the latent mean level of self-esteem and the latent mean of SMU in the past hour, and the correlation between these mean levels (to investigate RQ1). Finally, we included the between-person variances around the within-person effects of SMU on self-esteem (i.e., random effects to investigate H2).

Before estimating the model, we checked the required assumption of stationarity, that is, whether the mean of the outcome did not systematically change during the study ( McNeish & Hamaker, 2020 ). To do so we compared a two-level fixed effect model with day of study predicting self-esteem with an intercept-only model (i.e., a model without predictors). The assumption of stationarity was confirmed: Day of the study explained only 0.82% of the within-person variance in self-esteem.

Model specifications . By default, DSEM uses Bayesian Markov Chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) for model estimation. We followed our preregistered plan of analyses and ran the DSEM model with a minimum of 5,000 iterations. Before interpreting the estimates, we checked whether the model converged following the procedure of Hamaker et al. (2018) . Model convergence is considered successful when the Potential Scale Reduction (PSR) values are very close to 1 ( Gelman & Rubin, 1992 ), and the trace plots for each parameter look like fat caterpillars. We interpreted the parameters with the Bayesian credible intervals (CIs), as well as the Bayesian p- values. The hypotheses are confirmed if the 95% CIs for the effect of SMU on self-esteem (within-level; H1) and for the variance around this effect (between-level; H2) do not contain 0. Further details of the analytical strategy can be found in the preregistration of the study.

Correlations and Descriptives

Table 1 presents the means, standard deviations (SDs), ranges, and the within-person, between-person, and intra-class correlations (ICCs) of time spent with social media (SMU) and self-esteem. As the table shows, the average level of self-esteem was high ( M  =   4.09, SD = 1.12, range = 0–6). Participants spent on average almost 17 minutes (range 0–60 min.) with social media in the hour before each measurement occasion. The between-person association of the mean level of SMU with the mean level of self-esteem was significantly negative ( r = −.14, p = .005). The within-person correlation was close to zero ( r = −.01, p = .028), but significant (due to the high power of the study).

Descriptive Statistics and Within-Person, Between-Person, and Intra-Class Correlations of Time Spent with Social Media (SMU) and Self-Esteem

Mean scores reflect average number of minutes spent with social media in the past hour.

Within-person association ( p = .028) between SMU and self-esteem.

between-person association ( p = .005) between SMU and self-esteem.

The Intra-Class Correlations (ICCs) were .45 for self-esteem and .48 for SMU, which means that 45% of the variance in self-esteem and 48% of the variance in SMU was explained by differences between participants (i.e., between-person variance), whereas the larger part of these variances (55% and 52%) was explained by fluctuations within participants (i.e., within-person variance). These ICCs confirm that our sampling scheme of six assessments a day was appropriate for assessing within-person fluctuations in self-esteem and SMU and led to data with sufficient within-person variance for DSEM analyses.

DSEM Results

In all the steps of the analysis strategy, we followed our preregistered plan . We first ran a DSEM model with a minimum of 5,000 iterations (and a default maximum of 50,000 iterations) and one-hour time intervals (TINTERVAL = 1). This model did not converge: The Potential Scale Reduction (PSR) convergence criterion reached 1.354, which is not close enough to 1. As recommended by McNeish and Hamaker (2020) , in a next step, we improved the model setup by increasing the time interval from 1 to 2 hours (TINTERVAL = 2). This model converged well and before the 5,000 iterations. The PSR for this model was 1.006. Visual inspection of the trace plots confirmed that convergence was successful. Finally, we also ran a model with 10,000 iterations to exclude the possibility that the PSR value of 5,000 iterations was close to 1 by chance ( Schultzberg & Muthén, 2018 ). This model reached a PSR of 1.002, and its results did not deviate from the model with 5,000 iterations.

Investigating Research Question and Hypotheses

To answer our research question (RQ1), we investigated the between-person association between SMU and self-esteem. The DSEM analyses revealed a significantly negative association of −.147 between SMU and participants’ level of self-esteem, meaning that participants who spent more time with social media across the three weeks had a lower average level of self-esteem compared to participants who spent less time with social media across this period ( Table 2 ).

DSEM Results of the Between-Person Associations and Within-Person Effects of Time Spent with Social Media (SMU) and Self-Esteem (S-E)

The relationship between SMU and β rβ reflects the extent to which the within-person effect of momentary SMU on momentary S-E depends on the average level of adolescents’ SMU;

The relationship between S-E and β β reflects the extent to which the within-person effect of momentary SMU on momentary S-E depends on adolescents’ average level of S-E;

The 95% Credible Interval of the variance around the effect of SMU on S-E indicates that the within-person effect of SMU on S-E differed among participants. b ’s are unstandardized; β β’s are standardized using the STDYX Standardization in Mplus; p -values are one-tailed Bayesian p -values ( McNeish & Hamaker, 2020 ).

Our first hypothesis (H1) predicted an overall positive within-person effect of SMU on self-esteem. This within-person effect represents the average changes in self-esteem (i.e., self-esteem controlled for self-esteem at t −1) as a result of SMU in the previous hour. This hypothesis did not receive support. Despite the high power of the study, the within-person effect was nonsignificant (β = −.009), meaning that, on average, participants’ self-esteem did not increase nor decrease as a result of their SMU in the previous hour ( Table 2 ).

Our second hypothesis (H2), which predicted that the within-person effect of SMU on changes in self-esteem would differ from participant to participant, did receive support ( Table 2 : random effect = 0.006, p = .000). This random effect means that there was significant variance between participants in the extent to which their SMU in the previous hour predicted changes in their self-esteem.

Figure 1 shows the distribution of the person-specific standardized effect sizes for the effect of SMU on changes in self-esteem. These effect sizes ranged from β = −.21 to β = +.17 across participants. As the bar graph shows, the majority of participants (88%) experienced no or very small positive or negative effects of their SMU (i.e., −.10 < β < .10) on changes in self-esteem, whereas a small group of participants (4%) experienced positive (.10 ≤ β ≤ .17), and another small group (8%) experienced negative effects (−.21 ≤ β ≤ -.10) of SMU on changes in self-esteem. Figure 2 presents the N  =   1 time-series plots of three participants, one who experienced a positive, one who experienced a negative, and one who experienced a null-effect of SMU on self-esteem.

Range of the Standardized Person-Specific Effects of SMU on in Self-Esteem.

Range of the Standardized Person-Specific Effects of SMU on in Self-Esteem.

Note. The vertical black line represents the mean of the person-specific effects ( β = −.009).

Three N = 1 time-series plots picturing the effects of SMU on self-esteem (S-E).

Three N = 1 time-series plots picturing the effects of SMU on self-esteem (S-E).

Note . The x -axes represent the measurement moments (range 1–126). The y -axes represent the co-fluctuations in SMU (blue lines, range 0–60 minutes/10) and S-E (yellow lines, range 0–6). The top plot belongs to a participant who experienced a positive effect of SMU on S-E ( β = .174). The SMU and S-E of this participant regularly co-fluctuated (e.g., around moment 40 and around moment 41). The middle plot is from a participant who experienced a negative effect ( β β = −.196): When the SMU of this participant increased, his/her S-E dropped (e.g., around moment 56), and vice versa (e.g., around moment 21). The bottom plot is from a participant who experienced no effects ( β = .013): At some moments, the S-E of this participant increased after his/her SMU increased (e.g., around moment 45), at othermoments her/his S-E dropped after his/her SMU went up (e.g., moment 72), resulting in a net effect close to zero.

Exploratory Analyses

In addition to our preregistered hypotheses, we ran four exploratory analyses. In a first step, we investigated potential platform differences. Because earlier studies into the relationship between SMU and self-esteem did not investigate differential effects of different platforms, we summed adolescents’ use of Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp to create our SMU measure. To explore potential platforms differences, we reran our analyses separately for each of the three platforms. Our results did not show significant differences in the between-person relationships and within-person effects of the use of these platforms on self-esteem (see Supplement 1).

In a second step, we ran a multilevel model without controlling for self-esteem at the previous assessment. Given that DSEM models are rather stringent and that sizeable differences in effect sizes between lagged and non-lagged media effects have been reported ( Adachi & Willoughby, 2015 ), we wanted to get insight into these differences. All other model specifications of the multilevel model were identical to the initial DSEM model. The associations between SMU and self-esteem in the multilevel model ranged from β = −.34 to β = +.33. Consistent with the DSEM model, the average within-person association of SMU and self-esteem was close to zero (β = −.007, p = .162, CI = [−0.022, 0.007] compared to β = −.009 in the DSEM model).

In a third step, we explored whether the person-specific within-person effects of SMU on self-esteem (i.e., the βs) differed for adolescents with different mean levels of SMU or different mean levels of self-esteem. As Table 2 shows, the cross-level interaction of participants’ mean levels of SMU with the β’s was non-significant, indicating that adolescents with higher mean levels of SMU did not experience a more negative (or positive) within-person effect of SMU on their self-esteem than their peers with lower SMU. The cross-level interaction of self-esteem and the βs did reveal that the within-person effect of SMU on self-esteem depended on adolescents’ mean level of self-esteem: Adolescents with lower average levels of self-esteem had a more positive within-person effect of SMU on self-esteem than adolescents with higher average levels of self-esteem, and vice versa.

In a final step, we investigated a between-person hypothesis of one of the anonymous reviewers, who suggested to check whether adolescents with moderate SMU would experience higher trait levels of self-esteem than those with low and high SMU. We investigated this potential inverted U-shaped relationship between SMU and self-esteem by following the two-step hierarchical regression analysis used by Cingel and Olsen (2018) . At step 1 of this regression analysis, we found a negative linear relationship between SMU and self-esteem (β = − .145, p = .005; R 2 = .021, see also Table 1 ). At step 2, we found no significant curvilinear relationship between SMU and self-esteem, because the added squared SMU term did not result in a significant change in the explained variance (Δ R 2 = .001, Δ F (1, 380) = .516, p = .473).

Sensitivity Analysis

As preregistered , we conducted a validation check to examine whether participants’ answers were trustworthy according to the following criteria: (1) inconsistency of participants’ within-person response patterns, (2) outliers, (3) unserious responses (e.g., gross comments) to the open question in the ESM study. Based on these criteria, we considered the responses of eight participants as potentially untrustworthy, because they violated criterion 1 and 2 ( n  =   4) or criterion 1 and 3 ( n  =   4). As a sensitivity analysis, we reran the DSEM analysis without these eight participants. The results of both the between-person and within-person associations did not deviate from those of the full sample.

The two existing meta-analyses on the relationship of SMU and self-esteem assessed the effects of their included empirical studies as weak and their results as mixed ( Huang, 2017 ; Liu & Baumeister, 2016 ). The between-person associations reported in empirical studies on SMU and self-esteem ranged from +.22 ( Apaolaza et al., 2013 ) to − .28 ( Rodgers et al., 2020 ). In the current study, the between-person association between SMU and self-esteem fits within this range: We found a negative relationship of r = − .15 between SMU and self-esteem (RQ1), meaning that adolescents who spent more time on social media across a period of three weeks reported a lower level of self-esteem than adolescents who spent less time on social media. This negative relationship pertained to the summed usage of Instagram, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, but did not differ for the usage of each of the separate platforms.

In addition, although we hypothesized a positive overall within -person effect of SMU on self-esteem (H1), we found a null effect. However, this overall null effect must be interpreted in light of the supportive results for our second hypothesis (H2), which predicted that the effect of SMU on self-esteem would differ from adolescent to adolescent. We found that the majority of participants (88%) experienced no or very small positive or negative effects of SMU on changes in self-esteem ( − .10 < β < .10), whereas one small group (4%) experienced positive effects (.10 ≤ β ≤ .17), and another small group (8%) negative effects of SMU ( − .21 ≤ β ≤ − .10) on self-esteem.

The person-specific effect sizes reported in the current study pertain to SMU effects on changes in self-esteem (i.e., self-esteem controlled for previous levels of self-esteem). As Adachi and Willoughby (2015 , p. 117) argue, such effect sizes are often “dramatically” smaller than those for outcomes that are not controlled for their previous levels. Indeed, when we checked this assumption of Adachi & Willoughby, the associations between SMU and self-esteem not controlled for its previous levels resulted in a considerably wider range of effect sizes (β = − .34 to β = +.33) than those that did control for previous levels (β = − . 21 to β = +.17). To account for a potential undervaluation of effect sizes in autoregressive models, Adachi and Willoughby (2015 , p. 127) proposed “a more liberal cut-off for small effects in autoregressive models (e.g., small = .05).” In this study, we followed our preregistration and interpreted effect sizes ranging from − .10 < β < +.10 as non-existent to very small. However, if we would apply the guideline proposed by Adachi and Willoughby (2015) to our results, the distribution of effect sizes would lead to 21% negative susceptibles, 16% positive susceptibles, and 63% non-susceptibles.

Our results showed that the effects of SMU on self-esteem are unique for each individual adolescent, which may, in turn, explain why the two meta-analyses evaluated the effects of their included studies as weak and their results as inconsistent. First, our results suggest that these effects were weak because they were diluted across a heterogeneous sample of adolescents with different susceptibilities to the effects of SMU. This suggestion is supported by comparing our overall within-person effect (β = − .01, ns) with the full range of person-specific effects, which ranged from moderately negative to moderately positive. Second, the effects reported in earlier studies may have been inconsistent because these studies may, by chance, have slightly oversampled either “positive susceptibles” or “negative susceptibles.” After all, if a sample is somewhat biased towards positive susceptibles, the results would yield a moderately positive overall effect. Conversely, if a sample is somewhat biased towards negative susceptibles the results would report a moderately negative overall effect.

It may seem reassuring at first sight that the far majority of participants in our study did not experience sizeable negative effects of SMU on their self-esteem. However, as illustrated in the bottom N  =   1 time-series plot in Figure 2 , for some participants, their non-significant within-person effect may result from strong social media-induced ups and downs in self-esteem, which cancelled each other out across time, resulting in a net null effect. However, as the two upper time-series plots in Figure 2 show, not only the non-susceptibles, but also the positive and negative susceptibles sometimes experienced effects in the opposite direction: The positive susceptibles occasionally experienced negative effects, while the negative susceptibles occasionally experienced positive effects.

Although DSEM models enable researchers to demonstrate how within-person effects of SMU differ across persons, they do not (yet) allow us to statistically evaluate the presence of both positive and negative effects within one and the same person (Hamaker, 2020, personal communication). A possibility to analyze the combination of positive and negative effects within persons may soon be offered by even more advanced modeling strategies than DSEM, which are currently undergoing a rapid development. Among those promising developments are regime switching models ( Lu et al., 2019 ), which provide the opportunity to establish the co-occurrence of both positive and negative effects of SMU within single persons.

Explanatory Hypotheses and Avenues for Future Research

Although our study allowed us to reveal the prevalence of positive susceptibles, negative susceptibles, and non-susceptibles among participants, it did not investigate why and when some adolescents are more susceptible to SMU than others. Our exploratory results did show that adolescents with a lower mean level of self-esteem, experienced a more positive within-person effect of SMU on self-esteem than adolescents with a higher mean level of self-esteem. This latter result may point to a social compensation effect ( Kraut et al., 1998 ), indicating that adolescents who are low in self-esteem may successfully seek out social media to enhance their self-esteem. Our DSEM analysis did not reveal differences in the within-person effects of SMU on self-esteem among adolescents with high and low SMU, suggesting that the positive effects among some adolescents cannot be attributed to modest SMU, whereas the negative effects among other adolescents cannot be attributed to excessive SMU.

An important next step is to further explain why adolescents differ in their susceptibility to SMU. A first explanation may be that adolescents differ in the valence (the positivity or negativity) of their experiences while spending time on social media. It is, for example, possible that the positive susceptibles experience mainly positive content on social media, whereas the negative susceptibles experience mainly negative content. In this study, we focused on time as a predictor of momentary ups and downs in self-esteem. However, most self-esteem theories emphasize that it is the valence rather than the duration of social experiences that results in self-esteem fluctuations. It is assumed that self-esteem goes up when we succeed or when others accept us, and drops when we fail or when others reject us ( Leary & Baumeister, 2000 ). Future research should, therefore, extend our study by investigating to what extent the valence of experiences on social media accounts for differences in susceptibility to the effects of SMU above and beyond adolescents’ time spent on social media.

A second explanation as to why adolescents differ in their susceptibility to the effects of SMU may lie in person-specific susceptibilities to the positivity bias in SM. Our first hypothesis was based on the idea that the sharing of positively biased information would elicit reciprocal positive feedback from fellow users, which, in turn, would lead to overall improvements in self-esteem. However, our results suggest that, for some adolescents, this positivity bias may lead to decreases in self-esteem, for example, because of their tendency to compare themselves to other social media users who they perceive as more beautiful or successful. This tendency towards social comparison may lead to envy (e.g., Appel et al., 2016 ) and decreases in self-esteem ( Vogel et al., 2014 ).

Until now, studies investigating the positive feedback hypothesis have mostly focused on the positive effects of feedback on self-esteem (e.g., Valkenburg et al., 2017 ), whereas studies examining the social comparison hypothesis have mainly focused on the negative effects of social comparison on self-esteem (e.g., Vogel et al., 2014 ). However, both the positive feedback hypothesis and the social comparison hypothesis are more complex than they may seem at first sight. First, although most adolescents receive positive feedback while using social media, a minority frequently receives negative feedback ( Koutamanis et al., 2015 ), and may experience resulting decreases in self-esteem. Likewise, although social comparison may lead to envy, it may also lead to inspiration (e.g., Meier & Schäfer, 2018 ), and resulting increases in self-esteem. Future research should attempt to reconcile these explanatory hypotheses by investigating who is particularly susceptible to positive and/or negative feedback, and who is particularly susceptible to the positive (e.g., inspiration) and/or negative (e.g., envy) effects of social comparison on social media.

Another possible explanation for differences in person-specific effects of SMU on self-esteem may lie in differences in the specific contingencies on which adolescents’ self-esteem is based. Self-esteem contingency theory ( Crocker & Brummelman, 2018 ) recognizes that people differ in the areas of life that serve as the basis of their self-esteem ( Jordan & Zeigler-Hill, 2013 ). For example, for some adolescents their physical appearance may serve as the basis of their self-esteem, whereas others may base their self-esteem on peer approval. Different contexts may also activate different self-esteem contingencies ( Crocker & Brummelman, 2018 ). On the soccer field, athletic ability is valued, which may activate the athletic ability contingency in this context. On social media, physical appearance and peer approval may be relevant, so that these contingencies may particularly be triggered in the social media context. It is conceivable that adolescents who base their self-esteem on appearance or peer approval may be more susceptible to the effects of SMU than adolescents who base their self-esteem less on these contingencies, and this is, therefore, another important avenue for future research.

Stimulating Positive and Mitigating Negative Effects

Our results suggest that for the majority of adolescents the momentary effects of SMU are small or negligible. As discussed though, all adolescents—whether they are positive susceptibles, negative susceptibles, or non-susceptibles—may occasionally experience social media-induced drops in self-esteem. Social media have become a fixture in adolescents’ social life, and the use of these media may thus result in negative experiences among all adolescents. Therefore, not only the negative susceptibles, but all adolescents need their parents or educators to help them prevent, or cope with, these potentially negative experiences. Parents and educators can play a vital role in enhancing the positive effects of SMU and combatting the negative ones. Helping adolescents prevent or process negative feedback and explaining that the social media world may not be as beautiful as it often appears, are important ingredients of media-specific parenting as well as school-based media literacy programs.

Although this study was designed to contribute to (social) media effects theories and research, our analytical approach may also have social benefits. After all, N  =   1 time-series plots could not only be helpful for theory building, but also for person-specific advice to adolescents. These plots give a comprehensive snapshot of each adolescent’s experiences and responses across more or less prolonged time periods. Such information could greatly help tailoring prevention and intervention strategies to different adolescents. After all, only if we know which adolescents are more or less susceptible to the negative and positive effects of social media, are we able to adequately target prevention and intervention strategies at these adolescents.

Towards a Personalized Media Effects Paradigm

Insights into person-specific susceptibilities to certain environmental influences is burgeoning in several disciplines. For example, in medicine, personalized medicine is on the rise. In education, personalized learning is booming. And in developmental psychology, differential susceptibility theories are among the most prominent theories to explain heterogeneity in child development. Although N  =   1 or idiographic research is now progressively embraced in multiple disciplines, spurred by recent methodological developments, it has a long history behind it. In fact, in the first two decades of the 20th century, scholars such as Piaget, Pavlov, and Thorndike often conducted case-by-case research to develop and test their theories bottom up (i.e., from the individual to the population; Robinson, 2011 ). However, in the 1930s, idiographic research soon lost ground to nomothetic approaches, certainly after Francis Galton attached the term nomothetic to the aggregated group-based methodology that is still common in quantitative research ( Robinson, 2011 ). However, due to technological advancements, it has become feasible to collect masses of intensive longitudinal data from masses of individuals on the uses and effects of social media (e.g., through ESM, tracking). Moreover, rapid developments in data mining and statistical methods now also enable researchers to analyze highly complex N  =   1 data, and by doing so, to develop and investigate media effects and other communication theories bottom-up rather than top-down (i.e., from the population to the individual). We hope that this study may be a very first step to a personalized media effects paradigm.

Additional Supporting Information may be found in the online version of this article.

This study was funded by an NWO Spinoza Prize and a Gravitation grant (NWO Grant 024.001.003; Consortium on Individual Development) awarded to Patti Valkenburg by the Dutch Research Council (NWO). Additional funding was received from a VIDI grant (NWO VIDI Grant 452.17.011) awarded to Loes Keijsers.

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  • Review Article
  • Published: 07 May 2024

Mechanisms linking social media use to adolescent mental health vulnerability

  • Amy Orben   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-2937-4183 1 ,
  • Adrian Meier   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-8191-2962 2 ,
  • Tim Dalgleish   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-7304-2231 1 &
  • Sarah-Jayne Blakemore 3 , 4  

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Research linking social media use and adolescent mental health has produced mixed and inconsistent findings and little translational evidence, despite pressure to deliver concrete recommendations for families, schools and policymakers. At the same time, it is widely recognized that developmental changes in behaviour, cognition and neurobiology predispose adolescents to developing socio-emotional disorders. In this Review, we argue that such developmental changes would be a fruitful focus for social media research. Specifically, we review mechanisms by which social media could amplify the developmental changes that increase adolescents’ mental health vulnerability. These mechanisms include changes to behaviour, such as sharing risky content and self-presentation, and changes to cognition, such as modifications in self-concept, social comparison, responsiveness to social feedback and experiences of social exclusion. We also consider neurobiological mechanisms that heighten stress sensitivity and modify reward processing. By focusing on mechanisms by which social media might interact with developmental changes to increase mental health risks, our Review equips researchers with a toolkit of key digital affordances that enables theorizing and studying technology effects despite an ever-changing social media landscape.

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Introduction.

Adolescence is a period marked by profound neurobiological, behavioural and environmental changes that facilitate the transition from familial dependence to independent membership in society 1 , 2 . This critical developmental stage is also characterized by diminished well-being and increased vulnerability to the onset of mental health conditions 3 , 4 , 5 , particularly socio-emotional disorders such as depression, and eating disorders 4 , 6 (Fig. 1 ). Notable symptoms of socio-emotional disorders include heightened negative affect, mood dysregulation and an increased focus on distress or challenges concerning interpersonal relationships, including heightened sensitivity to peers or perceptions of others 6 . Although some risk factors for socio-emotional disorders do not necessarily occur in adolescence (including genetic predispositions, adverse childhood experiences and poverty 7 , 8 , 9 ), the unique developmental characteristics of this period of life can interact with pre-existing vulnerabilities, increasing the risk of disorder onset 10 .

figure 1

Meta-analytic proportion of age of onset of anxiety (red), obsessive-compulsive disorder (purple), eating disorders (orange), personality disorders (green), schizophrenia (grey) and mood disorders (blue). The peak age of onset (dotted lines) is 5.5 and 15.5 years for anxiety, 14.5 years for obsessive-compulsive disorder, 15.5 years for eating disorders and 20.5 years for personality disorders, schizophrenia and mood disorders. Adapted from ref. 258 , CC BY 4.0 ( https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ ).

Over the past decade, declines in adolescent mental health have become a great concern 11 , 12 . The prevalence of socio-emotional disorders has increased in the adolescent age range (10–24 years 2 ) 13 , 14 , 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , 20 , 21 , leading to mounting pressures on child and adolescent mental health services 16 , 21 , 22 . This increase has not been as pronounced among other age groups when compared with adolescents 20 , 22 , 23 (measured in ref.  20 , ref.  22 and ref.  23 as age 12–25 years, 12–20 years and 18–25 years, respectively), even if some studies have found increases across the entire lifespan 24 , 25 . Although these trends might not be generalizable across the world 26 or to subclinical indicators of distress 15 , similar trends have been found in a range of countries 27 . Declines in adolescent mental health, especially socio-emotional problems, are consistent across datasets and researchers have argued that they are not solely driven by changes in social attitudes, stigma or reporting of distress 28 , 29 .

Concurrently, adolescents’ lives have become increasingly digital, with most young people using social media platforms throughout the day 30 . Ninety-five per cent of UK adolescents aged 15 years use social media 31 , and 50% of US adolescents aged 13–17 years report being almost constantly online 32 . The social media environment impacts adolescent and adult life across many domains (for example, by enabling social communication or changing the way news is accessed) and influences individuals, dyads and larger social systems 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 . Because social media is inherently social and relational 37 , it potentially overlaps and interacts with the developmental changes that make adolescents vulnerable to the onset of mental health problems 38 , 39 (Fig. 2 ). Thus, it has been intensely debated whether the increase in social media use during the past decade has a causal role in the decline of adolescent mental health 40 . Indeed, rapid changes to the environment experienced before and during adolescence might be a fruitful area to explore when examining current mental health trends 41 .

figure 2

During adolescence, the interaction between genetic programming (yellow), social determinants (red) and environmental factors (blue), as well as the developmental changes discussed in this Review, increases the risk for onset of mental health conditions. Digital environments, mediated behaviours and experiences, and the impact that this technology has on society and economy more generally, are one aspect of the complex forces that might lead to the declines in adolescent mental health observed in the last decade. Adapted from ref. 259 , Springer Nature Limited.

Although there are many environmental changes that could be relevant, a substantial body of research has emerged to investigate the potential link between social media use and declines in adolescent mental health 42 , 43 using various research approaches, including cross-sectional studies 44 , longitudinal observational data analyses 45 , 46 , 47 and experimental studies 48 , 49 . However, the scientific results have been mixed and inconclusive (for reviews, see refs. 43 , 50 , 51 , 52 , 53 ), which has made it difficult to establish evidence-based recommendations, regulations and interventions aimed at ensuring that social media use is not harmful to adolescents 54 , 55 , 56 , 57 .

Many researchers attribute the mixed results to insufficient study specificity. For instance, the relationship between social media use and mental health varies notably across individuals 45 , 58 and developmental time windows 59 . Yet studies often examine adolescents without differentiating them based on age or developmental stage 60 , which prevents systematic accounts of individual and subgroup differences. Additionally, most studies only rely on self-reported measures of time spent on social media 61 , 62 , and overlook more nuanced aspects of social media use such as the nature of the activities 63 and the content or features that users engage with 52 . These factors need to be considered to unpack any broader relationships 35 , 64 , 65 , 66 . Furthermore, the measurement of mental health often conflates positive and negative mental health outcomes as well as various mental health conditions, which could all be differentially related to social media use 52 , 67 .

This research space presents substantial complexity 68 . There is an ever-increasing range of potential combinations of social media predictors, well-being and mental health outcomes and participant groups of varying backgrounds and demographics that can become the target of scientific investigation. However, the pressure to deliver policy and public-facing recommendations and interventions leaves little time to investigate comprehensively each of these combinations. Researchers need to be able to pinpoint quickly the research programmes with the maximum potential to create translational and real-world impact for adolescent mental health.

In this Review, we aim to delineate potential avenues for future research that could lead to concrete interventions to improve adolescent mental health by considering mechanisms at the nexus between pre-existing processes known to increase adolescent mental health vulnerability and digital affordances introduced by social media. First, we describe the affordance approach to understanding the effects of social media. We then draw upon research on adolescent development, mental health and social media to describe behavioural, cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms by which social media use might amplify changes during adolescent development to increase mental health vulnerability during this period of life. The specific mechanisms within each category were chosen because they have a strong evidence base showing that they undergo substantive changes during adolescent development, are implicated in mental health risk and can be modulated by social media affordances. Although the ways in which social media can also improve mental health resilience are not the focus of our Review and therefore are not reviewed fully here, they are briefly discussed in relation to each mechanism. Finally, we discuss future research focused on how to systematically test the intersection between social media and adolescent mental health.

Social media affordances

To study the impact of social media on adolescent mental health, its diverse design elements and highly individualized uses must be conceptualized. Initial research predominately related access to or time spent on social media to mental health outcomes 46 , 69 , 70 . However, social media is not similar to a toxin or nutrient for which each exposure dose has a defined link to a health-related outcome (dose–response relationship) 56 . Social media is a diverse environment that cannot be summarized by the amount of time one spends interacting with it 71 , 72 , and individual experiences are highly varied 45 .

Previous psychological reviews often focused on social media ‘features’ 73 and ‘affordances’ 74 interchangeably. However, these terms have distinct definitions in communication science and information systems research. Social media features are components of the technology intentionally designed to enable users to perform specific actions, such as liking, reposting or uploading a story 75 , 76 . By contrast, affordances describe the perceptions of action possibilities users have when engaging with social media and its features, such as anonymity (the difficulty with which social media users can identify the source of a message) and quantifiability (how countable information is).

The term ‘affordance’ came from ecological psychology and visuomotor research, and was described as mainly determined by human perception 77 . ‘Affordance’ was later adopted for design and human–computer interaction contexts to refer to the action possibilities that are suggested to the user by the technology design 78 . Communication research synthesizes both views. Affordances are now typically understood as the perceived — and therefore flexible — action possibilities of digital environments, which are jointly shaped by the technology’s features and users’ idiosyncratic perceptions of those features 79 .

Latent action possibilities can vary across different users, uses and technologies 79 . For example, ‘stories’ are a feature of Instagram designed to share content between users. Stories can also be described in terms of affordances when users perceive them as a way to determine how long their content remains available on the platform (persistence) or who can see that content (visibility) 80 , 81 , 82 , 83 , 84 . Low persistence (also termed ephemerality) and comparatively low visibility can be achieved through a technology feature (Instagram stories), but are not an outcome of technology use itself; they are instead perceived action possibilities that can vary across different technologies, users and designs 79 .

The affordances approach is particularly valuable for theorizing at a level above individual social media apps or specific features, which makes this approach more resilient to technological changes or shifts in platform popularity 79 , 85 . However, the affordances approach can also be related back to specific types of social media by assessing the extent to which certain affordances are ‘built into’ a particular platform through feature design 35 . Furthermore, because affordances depend on individuals’ perceptions and actions, they are more aligned than features with a neurocognitive and behavioural perspective to social media use. Affordances, similar to neurocognitive and behavioural research, emphasize the role of the user (how the technology is perceived, interpreted and used) rather than technology design per se. In this sense, the affordances approach is essential to overcome technological determinism of mental health outcomes, which overly emphasizes the role of technology as the driver of outcomes but overlooks the agency and impact of the people in question 86 . This flexibility and alignment with psychological theory has contributed to the increasing popularity of the affordance approach 35 , 73 , 74 , 85 , 87 and previous reviews have explored relevant social media affordances in the context of interpersonal communication among adults and adolescents 35 , 88 , 89 , adolescent body image concerns 73 and work contexts 33 . Here, we focus on the affordances of social media that are relevant for adolescent development and its intersection with mental health (Table  1 ).

Behavioural mechanisms

Adolescents often use social media differently to adults, engaging with different platforms and features and, potentially, perceiving or making use of affordances in distinctive ways 35 . These usage differences might interact with developmental characteristics and changes to amplify mental health vulnerability (Fig.  3 ). We examine two behavioural mechanisms that might govern the impact of social media use on mental health: risky posting behaviours and self-presentation.

figure 3

Social media affordances can amplify the impact that common adolescent developmental mechanisms (behavioural, cognitive and neurobiological) have on mental health. At the behavioural level (top), affordances such as permanence and publicness lead to an increased impact of risk-taking behaviour on mental health compared with similar behaviours in non-mediated environments. At the cognitive level (middle), high quantifiability influences the effects of social comparison. At the neurobiological level (bottom), low synchronicity can amplify the effects of stress on the developing brain.

Risky posting behaviour

Sensation-seeking peaks in adolescence and self-regulation abilities are still not fully developed in this period of life 90 . Thus, adolescents often engage in more risky behaviours than other age groups 91 . Adolescents are more likely to take risks in situations involving peers 92 , 93 , perhaps because they are motivated to avoid social exclusion 94 , 95 . Whether adolescent risk-taking behaviour is inherently adaptive or maladaptive is debated. Although some risk-taking behaviours can be adaptive and part of typical development, others can increase mental health vulnerability. For example, data from a prospective UK panel study of more than 5,500 young people showed that engaging in more risky behaviours (including social and health risks) at age 16 years increases the odds of a range of adverse outcomes at age 18 years, such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse 96 .

Social media can increase adolescents’ engagement in risky behaviours both in non-mediated and mediated environments (environments in which the behaviour is executed in or through a technology, such as a mobile phone and social media). First, affordances such as quantifiability in conjunction with visibility and association (the degree with which links between people, between people and content or between a presenter and their audience can be articulated) can promote more risky behaviours in non-mediated environments and in-person social interactions. For example, posts from university students containing references to alcohol gain more likes than posts not referencing alcohol and liking such posts predicts an individual’s subsequent drinking habits 97 . Users expecting likes from their audience are incentivized to engage in riskier posting behaviour (such as more frequent or more extreme posts containing references to alcohol). The relationship between risky online behaviour and offline behaviour is supported by meta-analyses that found a positive correlation between adolescents’ social media use and their engagement in behaviours that might expose them to harm or risk of injury (for example, substance use or risky sexual behaviours) 98 . Further, affordances such as persistence and visibility can mean that risky behaviours in mediated and non-mediated environments remain public for long periods of time, potentially influencing how an adolescent is perceived by peers over the longer term 39 , 99 .

Adolescence can also be a time of more risky social media use. For most forms of semi-public and public social media use, users typically do not know who exactly will be able to see their posts. Thus, adolescents need to self-present to an ‘imagined audience’ 100 and avoid posting the wrong kind of content as the boundaries between different social spheres collapse (context collapse 101 ). However, young people can underestimate the risks of disclosing revealing information in a social media environment 102 . Affordances such as visibility, replicability (social media posts remain in the system and can be screenshotted and shared even if they are later deleted 39 ), association and persistence could heighten the risk of experiencing cyberbullying, victimization and online harassment 103 . For example, adolescents can forward privately received sexual images to larger friendship groups, increasing the risk of online harassment over the subject of the sexual images 104 . Further, low bandwidth (a relative lack of socio-emotional cues) and high anonymity have the potential to disinhibit interactions between users and make behaviours and reactions more extreme 105 , 106 . For example, anonymity was associated with more trolling behaviours during an online group discussion in an experiment with 242 undergraduate students 107 .

Thus, social media might drive more risky behaviours in both mediated and non-mediated contexts, increasing mental health vulnerability. However, the evidence is still not clear cut and often discounts adolescent agency and understanding. For example, mixed-methods research has shown that young people often understand the risks of posting private or sexual content and use social media apps that ensure that posts are deleted and inaccessible after short periods of time to counteract them 39 (even though posts can still be captured in the meantime). Future work will therefore need to investigate how adolescents understand and balance such risks and how such processes relate to social media’s impact on mental health.

Self-presentation and identity

The adolescent period is characterized by an abundance of self-presentation activities on social media 74 , where the drive to present oneself becomes a fundamental motivation for engagement 108 . These activities include disclosing, concealing and modifying one’s true self, and might involve deception, to convey a desired impression to an audience 109 . Compared with adults, adolescents more frequently take part in self-presentation 102 , which can encompass both realistic and idealized portrayals of themselves 110 . In adults, authentic self-presentation has been associated with increased well-being, and inauthentic presentation (such as when a person describes themselves in ways not aligned with their true self) has been associated with decreased well-being 111 , 112 , 113 .

Several social media affordances shape the self-presentation behaviours of adolescents. For example, the editability of social media profiles enables users to curate their online identity 84 , 114 . Editability is further enhanced by highly visible (public) self-presentations. Additionally, the constant availability of social media platforms enables adolescents to access and engage with their profiles at any time, and provides them with rapid quantitative feedback about their popularity among peers 89 , 115 . People receive more direct and public feedback on their self-presentation on social media than in other types of environment 116 , 117 . The affordances associated with self-presentation can have a particular impact during adolescence, a period characterized by identity development and exploration.

Social media environments might provide more opportunities than offline environments for shaping one’s identity. Indeed, public self-presentation has been found to invoke more prominent identity shifts (substantial changes in identity) compared with private self-presentation 118 , 119 . Concerns have been raised that higher Internet use is associated with decreased self-concept clarity. Only one study of 101 adolescents as well as adults reviewed in a 2021 meta-analysis 120 showed that the intensity of Facebook use (measured by the Facebook Intensity Scale) predicted a longitudinal decline in self-concept clarity 3 months later, but the converse was not the case and changes in self-concept clarity did not predict Facebook use 121 . This result is still not enough to show a causal relationship 121 . Further, the affordances of persistence and replicability could also curtail adolescents’ ability to explore their identity freely 122 .

By contrast, qualitative research has highlighted that social media enables adolescents to broaden their horizons, explore their identity and identify and reaffirm their values 123 . Social media can help self-presentation by enabling adolescents to elaborate on various aspects of their identity, such as ethnicity and race 124 or sexuality 125 . Social media affordances such as editability and visibility can also facilitate this process. Adolescents can modify and curate self-presentations online, try out new identities or express previously undisclosed aspects of their identity 126 , 127 . They can leverage social media affordances to present different facets of themselves to various social groups by using different profiles, platforms and self-censorship and curation of posts 128 , 129 . Presenting and exploring different aspects of one’s identity can have mental health implications for minority teens. Emerging research shows a positive correlation between well-being and problematic Internet use in transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse adolescents (age 13–18 years), and positive sentiment has been associated with online identity disclosures in transgender individuals with supportive networks (both adolescent and adult) 130 , 131 .

Cognitive mechanisms

Adolescents and adults might experience different socio-cognitive impacts from the same social media activity. In this section, we review four cognitive mechanisms via which social media and its affordances might influence the link between adolescent development and mental health vulnerabilities (Fig.  3 ). These mechanisms (self-concept development, social comparison, social feedback and exclusion) roughly align with a previous review that examined self-esteem and social media use 115 .

Self-concept development

Self-concept refers to a person’s beliefs and evaluations about their own qualities and traits 132 , which first develops and becomes more complex throughout childhood and then accelerates its development during adolescence 133 , 134 , 135 . Self-concept is shaped by socio-emotional processes such as self-appraisal and social feedback 134 . A negative and unstable self-concept has been associated with negative mental health outcomes 136 , 137 .

Perspective-taking abilities also develop during adolescence 133 , 138 , 139 , as does the processing of self-relevant stimuli (measured by self-referential memory tasks, which assess memory for self-referential trait adjectives 140 , 141 ). During adolescence, direct self-evaluations and reflected self-evaluations (how someone thinks others evaluate them) become more similar. Further, self-evaluations have a distinct positive bias during childhood, but this positivity bias decreases in adolescence as evaluations of the self are integrated with judgements of other people’s perspectives 142 . Indeed, negative self-evaluations peak in late adolescence (around age 19 years) 140 .

The impact of social media on the development of self-concept could be heightened during adolescence because of affordances such as personalization of content 143 (the degree to which content can be tailored to fit the identity, preferences or expectations of the receiver), which adapts the information young people are exposed to. Other affordances with similar impacts are quantifiability, availability (the accessibility of the technology as well as the user’s accessibility through the technology) and public visibility of interactions 89 , which render the evaluations of others more prominent and omnipresent. The prominence of social evaluation can pose long-term risks to mental health under certain conditions and for some users 144 , 145 . For example, receiving negative evaluations from others or being exposed to cyberbullying behaviours 146 , 147 can, potentially, have heightened impact at times of self-concept development.

A pioneering cross-sectional study of 150 adolescents showed that direct self-evaluations are more similar to reflected self-evaluations, and self-evaluations are more negative, in adolescents aged 11–21 years who estimate spending more time on social media 148 . Further, longitudinal data have shown bidirectional negative links between social media use and satisfaction with domains of the self (such as satisfaction with family, friends or schoolwork) 47 .

Although large-scale evidence is still unavailable, these findings raise the interesting prospect that social media might have a negative influence on perspective-taking and self-concept. There is less evidence for the potential positive influence of social media on these aspects of adolescent development, demonstrating an important research gap. Some researchers hypothesize that social media enables self-concept unification because it provides ample opportunity to find validation 89 . Research has also discussed how algorithmic curation of personalized social media feeds (for example, TikTok algorithms tailoring videos viewed to the user’s interests) enables users to reflect on their self-concept by being exposed to others’ experiences and perspectives 143 , an area where future research can provide important insights.

Social comparison

Social comparison (thinking about information about other people in relation to the self 149 ) also influences self-concept development and becomes particularly important during adolescence 133 , 150 . There are a range of social media affordances that can amplify the impact of social comparison on mental health. For example, quantifiability enables like or follower counts to be easily compared with others as a sign of status, which facilitates social ranking 151 , 152 , 153 , 154 . Studies of older adolescents and adults aged, on average, 20 years have also found that the number of likes or reactions received predict, in part, how successful users judge their self-presentation posts on Facebook 155 . Furthermore, personalization enables the content that users see on social media to be curated so as to be highly relevant and interesting for them, which should intensify comparisons. For example, an adolescent interested in sports and fitness content will receive personalized recommendations fitting those interests, which should increase the likelihood of comparisons with people portrayed in this content. In turn, the affordance of association can help adolescents surround themselves with similar peers and public personae online, enhancing social comparison effects 63 , 156 . Being able to edit posts (via the affordance of editability) has been argued to contribute to the positivity bias on social media: what is portrayed online is often more positive than the offline experience. Thus, upward comparisons are more likely to happen in online spaces than downward or lateral comparisons 157 . Lastly, the verifiability of others’ idealized self-presentations is often low, meaning that users have insufficient cues to gauge their authenticity 158 .

Engaging in comparisons on social media has been associated with depression in correlational studies 159 . Furthermore, qualitative research has shown that not receiving as many positive evaluations as expected (or if positive evaluations are not provided quickly enough) increases negative emotions in children and adolescents aged between age 9 and 19 years 39 . This result aligns with a reinforcement learning modelling study of Instagram data, which found that the likes a user receives on their own posts become less valuable and less predictive of future posting behaviour if others in their network receive more likes on their posts 160 . Although this study did not measure mood or mental health, it shows that the value of the likes are not static but inherently social; their impact depends on how many are typically received by other people in the same network.

Among the different types of social comparison that adolescents engage in (comparing one’s achievements, social status or lifestyle), the most substantial concerns have been raised about body-related comparisons. One review suggested that social media affordances create a ‘perfect storm’ for body image concerns that can contribute to both socio-emotional and eating disorders 73 . Social media affordances might increase young people’s focus on other people’s appearances as well as on their own appearance by showing idealized, highly edited images, providing quantified feedback and making the ability to associate and compare oneself with peers constantly available 161 , 162 . The latter puts adolescents who are less popular or receive less social support at particular risk of low self-image and social distress 35 .

Affordances enable more prominent and explicit social comparisons in social media environments relative to offline environments 158 , 159 , 163 , 164 , 165 . However, this association could have a positive impact on mental health 164 , 166 . Initial evidence suggests beneficial outcomes of upward comparisons on social media, which can motivate behaviour change and yield positive downstream effects on mental health 164 , 166 . Positive motivational effects (inspiration) have been observed among young adults for topics such as travelling and exploring nature, as well as fitness and other health behaviours, which can all improve mental health 167 . Importantly, inspiration experiences are not a niche phenomenon on social media: an experience sampling study of 353 Dutch adolescents (mean age 13–15 years) found that participants reported some level of social media-induced inspiration in 33% of the times they were asked to report on this over the course of 3 weeks 168 . Several experimental and longitudinal studies show that inspiration is linked to upward comparison on social media 157 , 164 , 166 . However, the positive, motivating side of social comparison on social media has only been examined in a few studies and requires additional investigation.

Social feedback

Adolescence is also a period of social reorientation, when peers tend to become more important than family 169 , peer acceptance becomes increasingly relevant 170 , 171 , 172 and young people spend increasing amounts of time with peers 173 . In parallel, there is a heightened sensitivity to negative socio-emotional or self-referential cues 140 , 174 , higher expectation of being rejected by others 175 and internalization of such rejection 142 , 176 compared with other phases in life development. A meta-analysis of both adolescents and adults found that oversensitivity to social rejection is moderately associated with both depression and anxiety 177 .

Social media affordances might amplify the potential impact of social feedback on mental health. Wanting to be accepted by peers and increased susceptibility to social rewards could be a motivator for using social media in the first place 178 . Indeed, receiving likes as social reward activated areas of the brain (such as the nucleus accumbens) that are also activated by monetary reward 179 . Quantifiability amplifies peer acceptance and rejection (via like counts), and social rejection has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes 170 , 180 , 181 , 182 . Social media can also increase feelings of being evaluated, the risk of social rejection and rumination about potential rejection due to affordances such as quantifiability, synchronicity (the degree to which an interaction happens in real time) and variability of social rewards (the degree to which social interaction and feedback occur on variable time schedules). For example, one study of undergraduate students found that active communication such as messaging was associated with feeling better after Facebook use; however, this was not the case if the communication led to negative feelings such as rumination (for example, after no responses to the messages) 183 .

In a study assessing threatened social evaluation online 184 , participants were asked to record a statement about themselves and were told their statements would be rated by others. To increase the authenticity of the threat, participants were asked to rate other people’s recordings. Threatened social evaluation online in this study decreased mood, most prominently in people with high sensitivity to social rejection. Adolescents who are more sensitive to social rejection report more severe depressive symptoms and maladaptive ruminative brooding in both mediated and non-mediated social environments, and this association is most prominent in early adolescence 185 . Not receiving as much online social approval as peers led to more severe depressive symptoms in a study of American ninth-grade adolescents (between age 14 and 15 years), especially those who were already experiencing peer victimization 153 . Furthermore, individuals with lower self-esteem post more negative and less positive content than individuals with higher self-esteem. Posted negative content receives less social reward and recognition from others than positive content, possibly creating a vicious cycle 186 . Negative experiences pertaining to social exclusion and status are also risk factors for socio-emotional disorders 180 .

The impact of social media experiences on self-esteem can be very heterogeneous, varying substantially across individuals. As a benefit, positive social feedback obtained via social media can increase users’ self-esteem 115 , an association also found among adolescents 187 . For instance, receiving likes on one’s profile or posted photographs can bolster self-esteem in the short term 144 , 188 . A study linking behavioural data and self-reports from Facebook users found that receiving quick responses on public posts increased a sense of social support and decreased loneliness 189 . Furthermore, a review of reviews consistently documented that users who report more social media use also perceive themselves to have more social resources and support online 52 , although this association has mostly been studied among young adults using social network sites such as Facebook. Whether such social feedback benefits extend to adolescents’ use of platforms centred on content consumption (such as TikTok or Instagram) is an open question.

Social inclusion and exclusion

Adolescents are more sensitive to the negative emotional impacts of being excluded than are adults 170 , 190 . It has been proposed that, as the importance of social affiliation increases during this period of life 134 , 191 , 192 , adolescents are more sensitive to a range of social stimuli, regardless of valence 193 . These include social feedback (such as compliments or likes) 95 , 194 , negative socio-emotional cues (such as negative facial expressions or social exclusion) 174 and social rejection 172 , 185 . By contrast, social inclusion (via friendships in adolescence) is protective against emotional disorders 195 and more social support is related to higher adolescent well-being 196 .

Experiencing ostracism and exclusion online decreases self-esteem and positive emotion 197 . This association has been found in vignette experiments where participants received no, only a few or a lot of likes 198 , or experiments that used mock-ups of social media sites where others received more likes than participants 153 . Being ostracized (not receiving attention or feedback) or rejected through social media features (receiving dislikes and no likes) is also associated with a reduced sense of belonging, meaningfulness, self-esteem and control 199 . Similar results were found when ostracism was experienced over messaging apps, such as not receiving a reply via WhatsApp 200 .

Evidence on whether social media also enables adolescents to experience positive social inclusion is mostly indirect and mixed. Some longitudinal surveys have found that prosocial feedback received on social media during major life events (such as university admissions) helps to buffer against stress 201 . Adult participants of a longitudinal study reported that social media offered more informational support than offline contexts, but offline contexts more often offered emotional or instrumental support 202 . Higher social network site use is, on average, associated with a perception of having more social resources and support in adults (for an overview of meta-analyses, see ref. 52 ). However, most of these studies have not investigated social support among adolescents, and it is unclear whether early findings (for example, on Facebook or Twitter) generalize to a social media landscape more strongly characterized by content consumption than social interaction (such as Instagram or TikTok).

Still, a review of social media use and offline interpersonal outcomes among adolescents documents both positive (sense of belonging and social capital) and negative (alienation from peers and perceived isolation) correlates 203 . Experience sampling research on emotional support among young adults has further shown that online social support is received and perceived as effective, and its perceived effectiveness is similar to in-person social support 204 . Social media use also has complex associations with friendship closeness among adolescents. For example, one experience sampling study found that greater use of WhatsApp or Instagram is associated with higher friendship closeness among adolescents; however, within-person examinations over time showed small negative associations 205 .

Neurobiological mechanisms

The long-term impact of environmental changes such as social media use on mental health might be amplified because adolescence is a period of considerable neurobiological development 95 (Fig.  3 ). During adolescence, overall cortical grey matter declines and white matter increases 206 , 207 . Development is particularly protracted in brain regions associated with social cognition and executive functions such as planning, decision-making and inhibiting prepotent responses. The changes in grey and white matter are thought to reflect axonal growth, myelination and synaptic reorganization, which are mechanisms of neuroplasticity influenced by the environment 208 . For example, research in rodents has demonstrated that adolescence is a sensitive period for social input, and that social isolation in adolescence has unique and more deleterious consequences for neural, behavioural and mental health development than social isolation before puberty or in adulthood 206 , 209 . There is evidence that brain regions involved in motivation and reward show greater activation to rewarding and motivational stimuli (such as appetitive stimuli and the presence of peers) in early and/or mid adolescence compared with other age groups 210 , 211 , 212 , 213 , 214 .

Little is known about the potential links between social media and neurodevelopment due to the paucity of research investigating these associations. Furthermore, causal chains (for example, social media increasing stress, which in turn influences the brain) have not yet been accurately delineated. However, it would be amiss not to recognize that brain development during adolescence forms part of the biological basis of mental health vulnerability and should therefore be considered. Indeed, the brain is proposed to be particularly plastic in adolescence and susceptible to environmental stimuli, both positive and negative 208 . Thus, even if adults and adolescents experienced the same affective consequences from social media use (such as increases in peer comparison or stress), these consequences might have a greater impact in adolescence.

A cross-sectional study (with some longitudinal elements) suggested that habitual checking of social media (for example, checking for rewards such as likes) might exacerbate reward sensitivity processes, leading to long-term hypersensitization of the reward system 215 . Specifically, frequently checking social media was associated with reduced activation in brain regions such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the amygdala in response to anticipated social feedback in young people. Brain activation during the same social feedback task was measured over subsequent years. Upon follow-up, anticipating feedback was associated with increased activation of the same brain regions among the individuals who checked social media frequently initially 215 . Although longitudinal brain imaging measurements enabled trajectories of brain development to be specified, the measures of social media use were only acquired once in the first wave of data collection. The study therefore cannot account for confounds such as personality traits, which might influence both social media checking behaviours and brain development. Other studies of digital screen use and brain development have found no impact on adolescent functional brain organization 216 .

Brain development and heightened neuroplasticity 208 render adolescence a particularly sensitive period with potentially long-term impacts into adulthood. It is possible that social media affordances that underpin increased checking and reward-seeking behaviours (such as quantifiability, variability of social rewards and permanent availability of peers) might have long-term consequences on reward processing when experienced during adolescence. However, this suggestion is still speculative and not backed up by evidence 217 .

Stress is another example of the potential amplifying effect of social media on adolescent mental health vulnerability due to neural development. Adolescents show higher stress reactivity because of maturational changes to, and increased reactivity in, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis 218 , 219 . Compared with children and adults, adolescents experience an increase in self-consciousness and associated emotional states such as self-reported embarrassment and related physiological measures of arousal (such as skin conductance), and heightened neural response patterns compared with adults, when being evaluated or observed by peers 220 . Similarly, adolescents (age 13–17 years) show higher stress responses (higher levels of cortisol or blood pressure) compared with children (age 7–12 years) when they perform in front of others or experience social rejection 221 .

Such changes in adolescence might confer heightened risk for the onset of mental health conditions, especially socio-emotional disorders 6 . Both adolescent rodents and humans show prolonged hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal activation after experiencing stress compared with conspecifics of different ages 218 , 219 . In animal models, stress during adolescence has been shown to result in increased anxiety levels in adulthood 222 and alterations in emotional and cognitive development 223 . Furthermore, human studies have linked stress in adolescence to a higher risk of mental health disorder onset 218 and reviews of cross-species work have illustrated a range of brain changes due to adolescent stress 224 , 225 .

There is still little conclusive neurobiological evidence about social media use and stress, and a lack of understanding about which affordances might be involved (although there has been a range of work studying digital stress; Box  1 ). Studies of changes in cortisol levels or hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal functioning and their relation to social media use have been mixed and inconclusive 226 , 227 . These results could be due to the challenge of studying stress responses in adolescents, particularly as cortisol fluctuates across the day and one-point readings can be unreliable. However, the increased stress sensitivity during the adolescent developmental period might mean that social media use can have a long-term influence on mental health due to neurobiological mechanisms. These processes are therefore important to understand in future research.

Box 1 Digital stress

Digital stress is not a unified construct. Thematic content analyses have categorized digital stress into type I stressors (for example, mean attacks, cyberbullying or shaming) and type II stressors (for example, interpersonal stress due to pressure to stay available) 260 . Other reviews have noted its complexity, and categorized digital stress into availability stress (stress that results from having to be constantly available), approval anxiety (anxiety regarding others’ reaction to their own profile, posts or activities online), fear of missing out (stress about being absent from or not experiencing others’ rewarding experiences) and communication overload (stress due to the scale, intensity and frequency of online communication) 261 .

Digital stress has been systematically linked to negative mental health outcomes. Higher digital stress was longitudinally associated with higher depressive symptoms in a questionnaire study 262 . Higher social media stress was also longitudinally related to poorer sleep outcomes in girls (but not boys) 263 . Studies and reviews have linked cyberbullying victimization (a highly stressful experience) to decreased mental health outcomes such as depression, and psychosocial outcomes such as self-esteem 103 , 146 , 147 , 264 , 265 . A systematic review of both adolescents and adults found a medium association ( r  = 0.26–0.34) between different components of digital stress and psychological distress outcomes such as anxiety, depression or loneliness, which was not moderated by age or sex (except for connection overload) 266 . However, the causal structure giving rise to such results is still far from clear. For example, surveys have linked higher stress levels to more problematic social media use and fear of missing out 267 , 268 .

Thus, the impact of digital stress on mental health is probably complex and influenced by the type of digital stressor and various affordances. For example, visibility and availability increase fear of negative public evaluation 269 and high availability and a social norm of responding quickly to messages drive constant monitoring in adolescents due to a persistent fear of upsetting friends 270 .

A range of relevant evidence from qualitative and quantitative studies documents that adolescents often ruminate about online interactions and messages. For example, online salience (constantly thinking about communication, content or events happening online) was positively associated with stress on both between-person and within-person levels in a cross-sectional quota sample of adults and three diary studies of young adults 271 , 272 . Online salience has also been associated with lower well-being in a pre-registered study of momentary self-reports from young adults with logged online behaviours. However, this study also noted that positive thoughts were related to higher well-being 273 . Furthermore, although some studies found no associations between the amount of communication and digital stress 272 , a cross-sectional study found that younger users’ (age 14–34 years and 35–49 years) perception of social pressure to be constantly available was related to communication load (measured by questions about the amount of use, as well as the urge to check email and social media) and Internet multitasking, whereas this was not the case for older users aged 50–85 years 274 . By contrast, communication load and perceived stress were associated only among older users.

Summary and future directions

To help to understand the potential role of social media in the decline of adolescent mental health over the past decade, researchers should study the mechanisms linking social media, adolescent development and mental health. Specifically, social media environments might amplify the socio-cognitive processes that render adolescents more vulnerable to mental health conditions in the first place. We outline various mechanisms at three levels of adolescent development — behavioural, cognitive and neurobiological — that could be involved in the decline of adolescent mental health as a function of social media engagement. To do so, we delineate specific social media affordances, such as quantification of social feedback or anonymity, which can also have positive impacts on mental health.

Our Review sets out clear recommendations for future research on the intersection of social media and adolescent mental health. The foundation of this research lies in the existing literature investigating the underlying processes that heighten adolescents’ risk of developing socio-emotional disorders. Zooming in on the potential mechanistic targets impacted by social media uses and affordances will produce specific research questions to facilitate controlled and systematic scientific inquiry relevant for intervention and translation. This approach encourages researchers to pinpoint the mechanisms and levels of explanation they want to include and will enable them to identify what factors to additionally consider, such as participants’ age 60 , the specific mental health outcomes being measured, the types of social media being examined and the populations under study 52 , 228 . Targeted and effective research should prioritize the most promising areas of study and acknowledge that all research approaches have inherent limitations 229 . Researchers must embrace methodological diversity, which in turn will facilitate triangulation. Surveys, experience sampling designs in conjunction with digital trace data, as well as experimental or neuroimaging paradigms and computational modelling (such as reinforcement learning) can all be used to address research questions comprehensively 230 . Employing such a multi-method approach enables the convergence of evidence and strengthens the reliability of findings 231 .

Mental health and developmental research can also become more applicable to the study of social media by considering how studies might already be exploring features of the digital environment, such as its design features and perceived affordances. Many cognitive neuroscience studies that investigate social processes and mental health during adolescence necessarily design tasks that can be completed in controlled experimental or brain scanning environments. Consequently, they tend to focus on digitally mediated interactions. However, researchers conceptualize and generalize their results to face-to-face interactions. For example, it is common across the discipline to not explicitly describe the interactions under study as being about social processes in digital environments (such as studies that assess social feedback based on the number of ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ received in social media 232 ). Considering whether cognitive neuroscience studies include key affordances of mediated (or non-mediated) environments, and discussing these in published papers, will make studies searchable within the field of social media research, enabling researchers to broaden the impact of their work and systematically specify generalizations to offline environments 233 .

To bridge the gap between knowledge about mediated and non-mediated social environments, it is essential to directly compare the two 233 . It is often assumed that negative experiences online have a detrimental impact on mental health. However, it remains unclear whether this mechanism is present in both mediated and non-mediated spaces or whether it is specific to the mediated context. For instance, our Review highlights that the quantification of social feedback through likes is an important affordance of social media 160 . Feedback on social media platforms might therefore elicit a greater sense of certainty because it is quantified compared with the more subjective and open-to-interpretation feedback received face to face 151 . Conducting experiments in which participants receive feedback that is more or less quantified and uncertain, specifically designed to compare mediated and non-mediated environments, would provide valuable insights. Such research efforts could also establish connections with computational neuroscience studies demonstrating that people tend to learn faster from stimuli that are less uncertain 234 .

We have chosen not to make recommendations concerning interventions targeting social media use to improve adolescent mental health for several reasons. First, we did not fully consider the bidirectional interactions between environment and development 35 , 235 , or the factors modulating adolescents’ differential susceptibility to the effects of social media 45 , 58 . For example, mental health status also influences how social media is used 47 , 58 , 59 , 236 , 237 (Box  2 ). These bidirectional interactions could be addressed using network or complexity science approaches 238 . Second, we do not yet know how the potential mechanisms by which social media might increase mental health vulnerability compare in magnitude, importance, scale and ease and/or cost of intervention with other factors and mechanisms that are already well known to influence mental health, such as poverty or loneliness. Last, social media use will probably interact with these predictors in ways that have not been delineated and can also support mental health resilience (for example, through social support or online self-help programmes). These complexities should be considered in future research, which will need to pinpoint not just the existence of mechanisms but their relative importance, to identify policy and intervention priorities.

Our Review has used a broad definition of mental health. Focusing on specific diagnostic or transdiagnostic symptomatology might reveal different mechanisms of interest. Furthermore, our Review is limited to mechanisms related to behaviour and neurocognitive development, disregarding other levels of explanation (such as genetics and culture) 34 , and also studying predominately Western-centric samples 239 . Mechanisms do not operate solely in linear pathways but exist within networks of interacting risk and resilience factors, characterized by non-linear and complex dynamics across diverse timescales 9 . Mechanisms and predisposing factors can interact and combine, amplifying mental health vulnerability. Mental health can be considered a dynamic system in which gradual changes to external conditions can have substantial downstream consequences due to system properties such as feedback loops 240 , 241 , 242 . These consequences are especially prominent in times of change and pre-existing vulnerability, such as adolescence 10 .

Indeed, if social media is a contributing factor to the current decline in adolescent mental health, as is commonly assumed, then it is important to identify and investigate mechanisms that are specifically tailored to the adolescent age range and make the case for why they matter. Without a thorough examination of these mechanisms and policy analysis to indicate whether they should be a priority to address, there is insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that social media is the primary — or even just an influential and important — driver of mental health declines. Researchers need to stop studying social media as monolithic and uniform, and instead study its features, affordances and outcomes by leveraging a range of methods including experiments, questionnaires, qualitative research and industry data. Ultimately, this comprehensive approach will enhance researchers’ ability to address the potential challenges that the digital era poses on adolescent mental health.

Box 2 Effects of mental health on social media use

Although a lot of scientific discussion has focused on the impact of social media use on mental health, cross-sectional studies cannot differentiate between whether social media use is influencing mental health or mental health is influencing social media use, or a third factor is influencing both 51 . It is likely that mental health status influences social media use creating reinforcing cycles of behaviour, something that has been considered in the communication sciences literature under the term ‘transactional media effects’ 58 , 236 , 237 . According to communication science models, media use and its consequences are components of reciprocal processes 275 .

There are similar models in mental health research. For example, people’s moods influence their judgements of events, which can lead to self-perpetuating cycles of negativity (or positivity); a mechanism called ‘mood congruency’ 276 . Behavioural studies have also shown that people experiencing poor mental health behave in ways that decrease their opportunity to experience environmental reward such as social activities, maintaining poor mental health 277 , 278 . Although for many people these behaviours are a form of coping (for example, by avoiding stressful circumstances), they often worsen symptoms of mental health conditions 279 .

Some longitudinal studies found that a decrease in adolescent well-being predicted an increase in social media use 1 year later 47 , 59 . However, other studies have found no relationships between well-being and social media use over long-term or daily time windows 45 , 46 . One reason behind the heterogeneity of the results could be that how mental health impacts social media use is highly individual 45 , 280 .

Knowledge on the impact of mental health on social media use is still in its infancy and studies struggle to reach coherent conclusions. However, findings from the mental health literature can be used to generate hypotheses about how aspects of mental health might impact social media use. For example, it has been repeatedly found that young people with anxiety or eating disorders engage in more social comparisons than individuals without these disorders 281 , 282 , and adolescents with depression report more unfavourable social comparisons on social media than adolescents without depression 283 . Similar results have been found for social feedback seeking (for example, reassurance), including in social media environments 159 . Specifically, depressive symptoms were more associated with social comparison and feedback seeking, and these associations were stronger in women and in adolescents who were less popular. Individuals from the general population with lower self-esteem post more negative and less positive content than individuals with higher self-esteem, which in turn is associated with receiving less positive feedback from others 185 . There are therefore a wide range of possible ways in which diverse aspects of mental health might influence specific facets of how social media is used — and, in turn, how it ends up impacting the user.

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Acknowledgements

A.O. and T.D. were funded by the Medical Research Council (MC_UU_00030/13). A.O. was funded by the Jacobs Foundation and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship (MR/X034925/1). S.-J.B. is funded by Wellcome (grant numbers WT107496/Z/15/Z and WT227882/Z/23/Z), the MRC, the Jacobs Foundation, the Wellspring Foundation and the University of Cambridge.

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Science News

Social media harms teens’ mental health, mounting evidence shows. what now.

Understanding what is going on in teens’ minds is necessary for targeted policy suggestions

A teen scrolls through social media alone on her phone.

Most teens use social media, often for hours on end. Some social scientists are confident that such use is harming their mental health. Now they want to pinpoint what explains the link.

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By Sujata Gupta

February 20, 2024 at 7:30 am

In January, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook’s parent company Meta, appeared at a congressional hearing to answer questions about how social media potentially harms children. Zuckerberg opened by saying: “The existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health.”

But many social scientists would disagree with that statement. In recent years, studies have started to show a causal link between teen social media use and reduced well-being or mood disorders, chiefly depression and anxiety.

Ironically, one of the most cited studies into this link focused on Facebook.

Researchers delved into whether the platform’s introduction across college campuses in the mid 2000s increased symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. The answer was a clear yes , says MIT economist Alexey Makarin, a coauthor of the study, which appeared in the November 2022 American Economic Review . “There is still a lot to be explored,” Makarin says, but “[to say] there is no causal evidence that social media causes mental health issues, to that I definitely object.”

The concern, and the studies, come from statistics showing that social media use in teens ages 13 to 17 is now almost ubiquitous. Two-thirds of teens report using TikTok, and some 60 percent of teens report using Instagram or Snapchat, a 2022 survey found. (Only 30 percent said they used Facebook.) Another survey showed that girls, on average, allot roughly 3.4 hours per day to TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, compared with roughly 2.1 hours among boys. At the same time, more teens are showing signs of depression than ever, especially girls ( SN: 6/30/23 ).

As more studies show a strong link between these phenomena, some researchers are starting to shift their attention to possible mechanisms. Why does social media use seem to trigger mental health problems? Why are those effects unevenly distributed among different groups, such as girls or young adults? And can the positives of social media be teased out from the negatives to provide more targeted guidance to teens, their caregivers and policymakers?

“You can’t design good public policy if you don’t know why things are happening,” says Scott Cunningham, an economist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Increasing rigor

Concerns over the effects of social media use in children have been circulating for years, resulting in a massive body of scientific literature. But those mostly correlational studies could not show if teen social media use was harming mental health or if teens with mental health problems were using more social media.

Moreover, the findings from such studies were often inconclusive, or the effects on mental health so small as to be inconsequential. In one study that received considerable media attention, psychologists Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski combined data from three surveys to see if they could find a link between technology use, including social media, and reduced well-being. The duo gauged the well-being of over 355,000 teenagers by focusing on questions around depression, suicidal thinking and self-esteem.

Digital technology use was associated with a slight decrease in adolescent well-being , Orben, now of the University of Cambridge, and Przybylski, of the University of Oxford, reported in 2019 in Nature Human Behaviour . But the duo downplayed that finding, noting that researchers have observed similar drops in adolescent well-being associated with drinking milk, going to the movies or eating potatoes.

Holes have begun to appear in that narrative thanks to newer, more rigorous studies.

In one longitudinal study, researchers — including Orben and Przybylski — used survey data on social media use and well-being from over 17,400 teens and young adults to look at how individuals’ responses to a question gauging life satisfaction changed between 2011 and 2018. And they dug into how the responses varied by gender, age and time spent on social media.

Social media use was associated with a drop in well-being among teens during certain developmental periods, chiefly puberty and young adulthood, the team reported in 2022 in Nature Communications . That translated to lower well-being scores around ages 11 to 13 for girls and ages 14 to 15 for boys. Both groups also reported a drop in well-being around age 19. Moreover, among the older teens, the team found evidence for the Goldilocks Hypothesis: the idea that both too much and too little time spent on social media can harm mental health.

“There’s hardly any effect if you look over everybody. But if you look at specific age groups, at particularly what [Orben] calls ‘windows of sensitivity’ … you see these clear effects,” says L.J. Shrum, a consumer psychologist at HEC Paris who was not involved with this research. His review of studies related to teen social media use and mental health is forthcoming in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

Cause and effect

That longitudinal study hints at causation, researchers say. But one of the clearest ways to pin down cause and effect is through natural or quasi-experiments. For these in-the-wild experiments, researchers must identify situations where the rollout of a societal “treatment” is staggered across space and time. They can then compare outcomes among members of the group who received the treatment to those still in the queue — the control group.

That was the approach Makarin and his team used in their study of Facebook. The researchers homed in on the staggered rollout of Facebook across 775 college campuses from 2004 to 2006. They combined that rollout data with student responses to the National College Health Assessment, a widely used survey of college students’ mental and physical health.

The team then sought to understand if those survey questions captured diagnosable mental health problems. Specifically, they had roughly 500 undergraduate students respond to questions both in the National College Health Assessment and in validated screening tools for depression and anxiety. They found that mental health scores on the assessment predicted scores on the screenings. That suggested that a drop in well-being on the college survey was a good proxy for a corresponding increase in diagnosable mental health disorders. 

Compared with campuses that had not yet gained access to Facebook, college campuses with Facebook experienced a 2 percentage point increase in the number of students who met the diagnostic criteria for anxiety or depression, the team found.

When it comes to showing a causal link between social media use in teens and worse mental health, “that study really is the crown jewel right now,” says Cunningham, who was not involved in that research.

A need for nuance

The social media landscape today is vastly different than the landscape of 20 years ago. Facebook is now optimized for maximum addiction, Shrum says, and other newer platforms, such as Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, have since copied and built on those features. Paired with the ubiquity of social media in general, the negative effects on mental health may well be larger now.

Moreover, social media research tends to focus on young adults — an easier cohort to study than minors. That needs to change, Cunningham says. “Most of us are worried about our high school kids and younger.” 

And so, researchers must pivot accordingly. Crucially, simple comparisons of social media users and nonusers no longer make sense. As Orben and Przybylski’s 2022 work suggested, a teen not on social media might well feel worse than one who briefly logs on. 

Researchers must also dig into why, and under what circumstances, social media use can harm mental health, Cunningham says. Explanations for this link abound. For instance, social media is thought to crowd out other activities or increase people’s likelihood of comparing themselves unfavorably with others. But big data studies, with their reliance on existing surveys and statistical analyses, cannot address those deeper questions. “These kinds of papers, there’s nothing you can really ask … to find these plausible mechanisms,” Cunningham says.

One ongoing effort to understand social media use from this more nuanced vantage point is the SMART Schools project out of the University of Birmingham in England. Pedagogical expert Victoria Goodyear and her team are comparing mental and physical health outcomes among children who attend schools that have restricted cell phone use to those attending schools without such a policy. The researchers described the protocol of that study of 30 schools and over 1,000 students in the July BMJ Open.

Goodyear and colleagues are also combining that natural experiment with qualitative research. They met with 36 five-person focus groups each consisting of all students, all parents or all educators at six of those schools. The team hopes to learn how students use their phones during the day, how usage practices make students feel, and what the various parties think of restrictions on cell phone use during the school day.

Talking to teens and those in their orbit is the best way to get at the mechanisms by which social media influences well-being — for better or worse, Goodyear says. Moving beyond big data to this more personal approach, however, takes considerable time and effort. “Social media has increased in pace and momentum very, very quickly,” she says. “And research takes a long time to catch up with that process.”

Until that catch-up occurs, though, researchers cannot dole out much advice. “What guidance could we provide to young people, parents and schools to help maintain the positives of social media use?” Goodyear asks. “There’s not concrete evidence yet.”

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When Adolescents’ Self-Worth Depends on Their Social Media Feedback: A Longitudinal Investigation With Depressive Symptoms

While social media is assumed to exacerbate adolescents’ depressive symptoms, research findings are ambiguous. One way to move the field forward is by looking beyond time spent on social media and considering subjective experiences. The current three-wave longitudinal panel study examines the within- and between-person relations between adolescents’ self-worth dependency on social media feedback and depressive symptoms. About 1,607 adolescents participated in two of the three waves, yet a third had to be excluded due to failing an attention check. Among the analytical sample of 1,032 adolescents, we found that adolescents who derived more of their self-worth from social media feedback were also more depressed, as indicated by a positive correlation at the between-person level. No support was found for within-person associations over time. These results highlight the need to examine effects of subjective experiences with social media by separating within- and between-person dynamics to reach more precise conclusions.

Related Topics

  • Hancock J.T.
  • Communication Research
  • Adolescent wellbeing

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The power of self-esteem and self-confidence.

Women smiling at herself in a mirror

While self-esteem and self-confidence are distinct, both play crucial roles in shaping our mental and overall well-being. Self-esteem, in its broadest sense, signifies the value individuals assign to themselves, influencing how they perceive their worth even in challenging circumstances where external evaluation occurs (Henriksen et al., 2017). Conversely, self-confidence centers on believing in one's abilities and potential achievements (Henriksen et al., 2017; The University of Queensland Australia, 2019). When individuals experience low self-esteem or self-confidence, it can have profound effects on their mental health and overall well-being, potentially leading to feelings of inadequacy or difficulty navigating life's challenges. However, with support and strategies to foster self-esteem and confidence, individuals can cultivate a more positive self-perception and approach to life, paving the way for greater resilience and fulfillment.

While low self-esteem and self-confidence can indeed have negative impacts on various aspects of life, it's important to remember that there is hope for improvement and growth:

  • Negative Thinking Patterns: Individuals caught in a cycle of negative thinking due to low self-esteem or confidence may feel trapped, but with support and strategies, they can learn to challenge and reframe these thoughts. Through cognitive-behavioral techniques and self-compassion practices, individuals can gradually shift towards more positive and empowering beliefs about themselves.
  • Emotional Distress: Feelings of sadness, anxiety, or anger stemming from low self-esteem and confidence can be overwhelming, but seeking professional help and building a support network can provide valuable coping mechanisms and emotional validation. With time and effort, individuals can learn to manage their emotions more effectively and cultivate greater emotional resilience.
  • Interpersonal Challenges: Social anxiety and communication difficulties can make forming and maintaining relationships challenging, but with patience and practice, individuals can develop social skills and assertiveness. Seeking therapy or joining support groups can provide opportunities for learning and growth in a safe and supportive environment.
  • Avoidance Behaviors: Avoiding challenges or situations due to low self-esteem or confidence may seem like the easier option, but confronting these fears and stepping outside of one's comfort zone is essential for personal growth. With gradual exposure and support, individuals can build confidence in their ability to face challenges and seize opportunities.
  • Low Performance: Struggling academically or professionally due to low self-esteem and confidence can be discouraging, but with perseverance and support, individuals can develop skills and strategies to improve performance. Setting achievable goals, seeking mentorship, and focusing on progress rather than perfection can lead to gradual improvement and success.

(Ideas from Mental Health America, n.d.; Mind, 2022; The University of Queensland Australia, 2019)  

Henriksen, I.O., Ranøyen, I., Indredavik, M.S.  et al. The role of self-esteem in the development of psychiatric problems: a three-year prospective study in a clinical sample of adolescents.  Child Adolesc Psychiatry Ment Health   11 , 68 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13034-017-0207-y

How can I improve my self-esteem? Mind. (2022). https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/self-esteem/tips-to-improve-your-self-esteem/

Social belonging and confidence . Mental Health America. (n.d.). https://mhanational.org/back-to-school/social-belonging-confidence

The University of Queensland Australia. (2019, November 25). Self-esteem and self-confidence . https://my.uq.edu.au/information-and-services/student-support/health-and-wellbeing/self-help-resources/self-esteem-and-self-confidence

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BRIEF RESEARCH REPORT article

#influenced the impact of social media influencing on self-esteem and the role of social comparison and resilience.

Lale Rüther

  • Department of Psychology, University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany

Social media influencers (SMIs) are online personas that acquire significant audiences on social networking sites (SNS) and have become a prevalent part of social media. Previous research indicates potentially detrimental effects of social media use on mental well-being, however, little is known about whether, how, and for whom online comparisons with SMIs lead to adverse psychological effects. In this study, we investigate the impact of positivity-biased images of female SMIs on the state self-esteem of female participants while considering social comparison processes as mediating and individual resilience as moderating factors. Regression analyses showed that acute exposure to positivity-biased SMI images led to upward social comparisons, which in turn predicted lower state self-esteem. Thus, results revealed a significant mediating effect of social comparisons on the association between image type and state self-esteem. However, when observing the direct effect of image type on state self-esteem, we found that the exposure to positivity-biased SMI images unexpectedly led to higher overall levels of state self-esteem relative to the control group. In light of contemporary social comparison literature, subsequent post-hoc analyses suggest that exposure to SMI images in this study may have prompted both contrastive and assimilative upwards comparisons, leading to varying consequences for distinct self-esteem dimensions, ultimately manifesting in the observed suppression effect. Resilience was not found to moderate the proposed associations. Thus, the findings of this study offer new insights into the impact of SMIs on individuals’ self-evaluations online, challenging previous assumptions, and suggest a need for further examination.

1. Introduction

Social media plays a central role in modern society, influencing how people access information, find entertainment and construct their identities ( Hajli, 2014 ; Herring and Kapidzic, 2015 ). Research indicates that social media use can harm psychological well-being due to online social comparisons ( Tiggeman and Zaccardo, 2015 ; Liu and Baumeister, 2016 ; Verduyn et al., 2017 ). Frequent users tend to see others as happier and more successful ( de Vries et al., 2017 ; Midgley et al., 2021 ). This perception is amplified by a social media positivity bias ( Schreurs and Vandenbosch, 2021 ), a tendency where individuals selectively present overly positive self-images online. This is particularly evident on platforms where imagery can be used to create a seemingly authentic self-image ( Bell, 2019 ). Previously, social media use has been associated with negative psychological outcomes—mediated by social comparisons—such as lower life satisfaction, increased loneliness, and body-image concerns ( Lup et al., 2015 ; Tiggeman and Zaccardo, 2015 ; Liu and Baumeister, 2016 ; Appel et al., 2020 ; Pedalino and Camerini, 2022 ). However, studies on the relationship between social media use and self-esteem show mixed results, with some finding negative ( Tiggeman and Zaccardo, 2015 ; Liu and Baumeister, 2016 ), while others note positive ( Gonzales and Hancock, 2011 ) or non-significant connections ( Liu and Baumeister, 2016 ; Appel et al., 2020 ).

2. Theoretical background and hypotheses

2.1. the mediating role of social comparisons.

Previous research underscores social comparisons’ role in mediating SNS effects on self-esteem ( Tiggeman and Zaccardo, 2015 ; Krause et al., 2021 ; Midgley et al., 2021 ). Instagram’s visual nature and editing features encourage positively biased self-presentation that can drive harmful upwards comparisons, mainly for those feeling inadequate to online ideals, often set by social media influencers (SMIs) ( Lup et al., 2015 ; Schreurs et al., 2022 ). Referred to as micro-celebrities, SMIs can perpetuate unattainable comparison standards ( Schreurs and Vandenbosch, 2021 ), fostering insecurities among viewers ( Gräve, 2017 ; Chae, 2018 ; Pedalino and Camerini, 2022 ). Initial findings link Instagram browsing to body dissatisfaction, particularly among adolescents comparing themselves to influencers ( Pedalino and Camerini, 2022 ). However, a research gap hinders understanding of the impact of social comparisons with SMIs on viewers’ self-esteem ( Verduyn et al., 2017 ; Appel et al., 2020 ).

Existing literature shows parallels in other media contexts, like lower body self-esteem linked to same-gendered models in fashion magazines ( Grogan et al., 1996 ). Moreover, social comparisons with SNS celebrities affect female adolescents’ body image and drive for thinness negatively ( Ho et al., 2016 ). Overall, studies investigating gender differences in self-esteem reveal a gender gap, with women reporting lower self-esteem across cultures and ages ( Bleidorn et al., 2016 ) and a tendency for women to engage more in negative upwards social comparisons ( Ho et al., 2016 ; Valls, 2022 ). This emphasizes women’s susceptibility to social media-induced upward comparisons. We hypothesize that exposure to positivity-biased SMI images on Instagram lowers female participants’ state self-esteem compared to neutral images of women (Hypothesis 1; Figure 1 ). We further assume that female individuals viewing SMI posts engage in upward social comparisons, leading to lower self-esteem, with upward comparisons mediating this association (Hypothesis 2, Figure 1 ).

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Figure 1 . Conceptual model of proposed associations in the present study. Image type was dummy coded (1 = SMI images, 0 = control images). Social comparison was measured using a semantic differential (SSC, Allan and Gilbert, 1995 ); lower scores on the measure reflect upward comparisons, higher scores reflect downward comparisons. Directions of associations as proposed in Hypotheses 1 to 4.

2.2. The moderating role of individual resilience

Resilience, the ability to adapt and rebound from stress and adversity aided by personal, social and situational resources ( Windle, 2011 ), is linked to self-esteem through positive emotions ( Benetti and Kambouropoulos, 2006 ). However, limited research explores individual resilience in social media settings. Bilgin and Taş (2018) found that higher resilience helps coping with negative online experiences, vital since online comparisons are tied to depressive symptoms, loneliness and negative body image (e.g., Tiggeman and Zaccardo, 2015 ; Ho et al., 2016 ; Appel et al., 2020 ). We view upward comparisons with SMIs as aversive experiences that could damage self-esteem and propose that resilience mitigates these effects. We hypothesize that greater resilience helps coping with positivity-biased SMI images, increasing self-esteem and reducing upward comparisons. Consequently, we expect resilience to moderate the link between SMI exposure and state self-esteem (Hypothesis 3) and social comparison (Hypothesis 4).

2.3. Gaps in research

Despite a rapid increase in psychological research related to social media, drawing generalizable conclusions remains challenging ( Appel et al., 2020 ). Limited experimental studies hinder establishing causality between social media use and mental well-being ( Appel et al., 2020 ). Meta-analyses by Appel et al. (2020) and Liu and Baumeister (2016) suggest small and inconclusive associations. Overlooking visually centered platforms, past studies primarily focused on Facebook use. However, images have since emerged as the most popular medium of online self-expression ( Herring and Kapidzic, 2015 ), highlighting the need to test the accuracy of previous findings in these social networking environments ( Verduyn et al., 2017 ). This study addresses these gaps, investigating associations between state self-esteem, social comparisons, and resilience after exposure to SMI images on Instagram, using an experimental design.

3.1. Participants

We recruited 245 university students, who identified as female. After excluding 14 participants for attention check failure or incomplete surveys, the final sample consisted of 231 participants aged 18 to 35 years ( M age  = 23.17, SD  = 3.18).

3.2. Design

This experimental study used a between-subjects design, varying the independent variable image type (SMI vs. control images). Self-esteem and social comparison were main dependent variables, with the latter entered as a mediator. Resilience was tested as a moderator for the relationships between image type, self-esteem and social comparison.

3.3. Materials

Participants randomly viewed one of two distinct sets of images, each containing 15 images of women. For both groups, images were presented one below the other to simulate the direction of scrolling in an Instagram feed. Participants in the SMI group viewed 15 images of female influencers, priorly selected based on two open access surveys listing the most-followed German influencers on Instagram in 2019 ( InfluencerDB, 2020a , b ). The images were selected based on the depiction of staged situations in which the influencer posed by angling their face or body toward the camera. Five images featured designer brand items, five others exhibited exotic vacation locations, and five images highlighted the influencer’s physical appearance (e.g., selfie). Each profile name was displayed underneath its designated image. The control image set contained 15 film photographs of women, provided by photographer Giulia Thinnes ( https://www.giuliathinnes.com ). The images were chosen due to their authentic portrayal of women in offline environments without positivity-biased features. The control image set matched the SMI images in terms of color scheme, the position (e.g., sitting, standing) and perspective on the displayed individuals. Five images displayed the women holding an object (e.g., book, bicycle), five displayed nature in the background (e.g., field, garden) and five more images showed a neutral background (e.g., wall). The photographer’s name was displayed underneath each image.

3.4. Measurements

3.4.1. state self-esteem.

State self-esteem was measured using a German translation of the State Self-Esteem Scale (SSES; Heatherton and Polivy, 1991 ). It consists of 20 items assessing short-lived changes in self-esteem using three subscales (i.e., performance-, social-, and appearance- related self-esteem) on a 5-point Likert scale (1 =  does not apply at all to 5 =  applies completely ). Higher scores on the SSES indicate higher self-esteem (Cronbach’s α = 0.87).

3.4.2. Social comparison

Social comparison was measured using a German translation of the Social Comparison Scale (SCS; Allan and Gilbert, 1995 ), which assesses self-perception of social rank, perceived attractiveness, and relative social standing in relation to others ( Allan and Gilbert, 1995 ) 1 . This measure was specifically selected due to its capacity to capture state social comparisons and temporary self-evaluations. The SCS measures social comparison in eleven items using a 5-point semantic differential methodology with two bipolar self-descriptive adjectives each (Cronbach’s α = 0.77). Participants were instructed to rate themselves relative to the women in the images they had previously viewed. Lower scores on the SCS reflect feelings of inferiority and low rank self-perception in relation to comparison targets, indicating upwards social comparisons, whereas higher scores indicate feelings of superiority and high rank self-perception, suggesting downwards social comparisons. The middle score (3) represents a neutral self-perception in comparison.

3.4.3. Resilience

Individual resilience was measured using the German Resilience Scale for Adults by Kaiser et al. (2019) . The scale assesses resilience according to the current research consensus, conceptualizing resilience as a multilevel construct of protective factors such as personal competencies, support structures and situational factors that determine the temporary ability of coping with stressors and aversive experiences ( Windle, 2011 Leipold, 2015 ). The scale uses a 7-point semantic differential with opposite response alternatives in 33 items and six subscales corresponding to the key dimensions of individual resilience: perception of self (PS), planned future (PF), social competence (SC), structured style (SS), family cohesion (FC) and social resources (SR). To assess the multilevel nature of resilience, all subscales (except for one) were included in the present study. However, the subscales were shortened to reduce participant burden. Respectively, items with item-total-correlation coefficients greater or equal r it  = 0.50 ( Döring and Bortz, 2016 ), were selected from the PS (Items 19, 25, 29), PF (Items 8, 14, 20), FC (Items 10, 16, 27), SR (Items 05, 28, 32), and SC (Items 15, 21) subscales. Items from the SS subscale were not included due to not meeting the item-total-correlation threshold in accordance with recommendation of the scale’s authors ( Kaiser et al., 2019 ). Therefore, participants in the present study answered 14 items from five subscales of the German RSA (Cronbach’s α = 0.80).

3.4.4. Analytical procedure

All analyses were conducted using SPSS Version 29.0. The relationships between image type, social comparison, and state self-esteem were tested in a simple mediation model (Model 4) using Hayes’ SPSS PROCESS macro ( Hayes, 2022 ; IBM Corp, 2022 ) and the proposed moderating effects of resilience were tested in a moderated mediation model (Model 8) using the same macro.

4.1. Descriptive statistics

Means, standard deviations and Pearson’s correlations on all study variables are displayed in Table 1 . Skewness and kurtosis values of the dependent variables were calculated and a normal distribution of the data could be assumed ( Table 1 ). An independent samples t -test showed no age differences, t (229) = −1.24, p  = 0.22, between the groups. Unexpectedly, image type and state self-esteem correlated positively, and participants in the SMI group (dummy variable 1) reported slightly higher state self-esteem ( M  = 3.36, SD  = 0.57) than participants in the control group (dummy variable 0; M  = 3.23, SD  = 0.57), t (229) = −1.8, p  = 0.04. However, image type and social comparison correlated negatively, indicating an upwards comparison tendency for the SMI group ( M  = 2.81, SD  = 0.54), whereas participants in the control group reported a more neutral position ( M  = 3.06, SD  = 0.39), t (229) = 4.10, p  < 0.001. Social comparison and state self-esteem correlated positively, suggesting that individuals engaging in downwards comparisons also reported higher state self-esteem. Resilience also correlated positively with state self-esteem and social comparison, suggesting that individuals with higher resilience also reported higher state self-esteem as well as a downwards comparison tendency. As expected, the correlation between image type and resilience was non-significant ( p  = 0.12).

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Table 1 . Pearson product–moment correlation coefficients between the independent variable and the dependent variables and variable distributions.

4.2. Mediating effect of social comparison

A simple mediation model was performed to test whether SMI images would predict lower state self-esteem (H1) and whether upwards social comparisons would mediate this association (H2; Table 2 ). Age was entered as a control variable. The preconditions for regression analysis were met ( Field, 2018 ; Hayes, 2022 ) and bootstrapping ( n  = 5,000) was used to determine 95% bias-corrected confidence intervals (95% BCa CI ). The total effect of image type on state self-esteem was non-significant ( p  = 0.09) indicating that the exposure to SMI images did not predict lower state self-esteem in an overall association when direct and indirect effects were considered. Thus, Hypothesis 1 was not supported by the results. The indirect effect of image type on state self-esteem via social comparison was negative (standardized indirect effect = −0.35, SE = 0.09, 95% BCa CI : [−0.55, −0.18]) indicating that social comparison mediated the relationship between image type and state self-esteem. Results showed that participants in the SMI group engaged more in upwards comparisons, which in turn related to lower state self-esteem, thus supporting Hypothesis 2. However, the direct effect of image type on state self-esteem was unexpectedly positive (β = 0.58, SE = 0.06, 95% BCa CI [0.21; 0.46]), opposing the observed indirect effect. This pattern of results suggests the occurrence of a suppression effect ( MacKinnon et al., 2000 ), which was probed in a subsequent post-hoc analysis.

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Table 2 . Results from the mediation analysis.

4.3. Post-hoc analysis of the suppression effect

To probe the role of social comparison in the observed suppression effect, we conducted a comparative assessment of regression coefficients and significance levels both prior to and following its inclusion in a regression model. Interestingly, the relationship between image type and self-esteem initially reflected in a linear regression model (b = 0.12, SE = 0.08, p  = 0.08) exhibited heightened magnitude and significance upon inclusion of social comparison in a multiple linear regression model (b = 0.29, SE = 0.06, p  < 0.001; MacKinnon et al., 2000 ). This substantiates the role of social comparison as a possible suppressor variable in this study. To furthermore shed a light on the inconsistency in self-esteem levels across the direct and indirect effects, we analyzed correlations between the different self-esteem subscales and relevant study variables. Social ( r  = 0.12, p  = 0.04) and performance-related ( r  = 0.17, p  = 0.005) self-esteem showed weak positive relationships with image type in an overall association, indicating higher self-esteem among those exposed to SMI images. In contrast, appearance-related self-esteem had a non-significant association with image type ( r  = 0.003, p  = 0.51). Appearance-related self-esteem correlated positively with social comparison ( r  = 0.54, p  < 0.001), indicating a direct link between upwards comparisons and lower appearance self-esteem. Social ( r  = 0.32, p  < 0.001) and performance-related ( r  = 0.21, p  < 0.001) self-esteem also correlated positively with social comparison.

4.4. Moderated mediation effects

To examine whether resilience moderated the associations between image type and social comparison (H3) as well as image type and state self-esteem (H4), a moderated mediation model was estimated. Age was entered as a control variable. Results ( Table 3 ) showed statistically non-significant interactions between image type and resilience for both dependent variables social comparison and state self-esteem. Moreover, the index of moderated mediation was non-significant (index: β = 0.05, 95% BCa CI : [−0.09, 0.18]). Thus, Hypotheses 3 and 4 were not supported by the results in this study.

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Table 3 . Results from the moderated meditation analysis.

5. Discussion

5.1. the mediating role of social comparison.

Using a simple mediation model, we examined the effects of image type on state self-esteem via social comparison. As hypothesized, social comparison mediated the relationship between image type and state self-esteem. Exposure to SMI images predicted upward comparisons, leading to lower self-esteem. Interestingly, the direct effect contradicted this, revealing a positive relationship between exposure to SMI images and self-esteem. This inconsistent mediation model may seem counterintuitive, but contemporary social comparison research provides insights for interpretation. Central to this discussion is Collins’ Upwards Assimilation Theory (2000) , which suggests that individuals who compare themselves to “better-off” others, tend to seek similarities. According to Collins (2000) , perceiving to share attributes with a “superior” comparison target can trigger upwards assimilations and subsequently elevate self-worth of the comparing individual. In our study, both participant groups shared notable attributes, like age, gender and nationality, with their comparison targets. However, as hypothesized (Hypothesis 1), only the SMI group viewed their targets as “superior” across various factors, while the control group showed neutral comparisons without a clear indication of either upward or downward direction. In this context, the heightened self-esteem observed in our study can be attributed to upwards assimilation, driven by the impression that participants share attributes with the presented SMIs, whom they viewed as “superior” in various dimensions. Conversely, the absence of upward assimilation among the control group may explain their comparatively lower self-esteem scores. This suggests that the SMI group’s engagement in upwards comparisons fostered assimilative tendencies, temporarily boosting self-esteem.

Further analyses of self-esteem subscales provided valuable insights. Social and performance-related self-esteem correlated positively with image type in an overall association, whereas appearance-related self-esteem showed no significant association. This suggests that the positive direct effect in our study might be driven particularly by social and performance-related self-esteem dimensions. Conversely, upwards comparisons were directly linked to lower appearance self-esteem. As the correlations for social and performance-related self-esteem in this relationship were weaker, it seems that appearance-related self-esteem subscale played a prominent role in determining the negative indirect effect.

An alternative explanation can be drawn from a recent article by Kim et al. (2021) , suggesting that emotional contagion, where individuals mirror emotions from Instagram posts, can precede social comparison ( Choi and Kim, 2021 ). According to them, browsing “positive” images on social media can boost positive affect and enhance life satisfaction through emotional contagion. They also suggest that both, contrastive social comparison and emotional contagion, can occur when individuals view positive and upwards comparison-inducing imagery. This perspective could elucidate why SMI images affected self-esteem differently in our mediation model. Positively-biased SMI images might have induced positive affect through emotional contagion, leading to higher self-esteem in social and performance-related dimensions. Nevertheless, participant still engaged in contrastive upwards social comparisons regarding appearance, resulting in lower self-esteem scores in that aspect. Kim et al. (2021) further emphasizes the significance of emotions in online social comparison processes and find similar opposing effects on self-esteem. They discovered that negative emotions (envy and depression) mediated the link between SNS addiction and lower self-esteem, whereas positive emotions (contentment) mediated the relationship between SNS addiction and higher self-esteem. This underscores the need for further research to explore affective responses after self-comparisons with SMIs and their potential impact on self-esteem dimensions.

Expanding on Festinger’s (1954) work, recent social comparison research emphasize that individuals evaluate others not only along vertical dimensions of comparison (e.g., status, agency), but also along horizontal dimensions, considering factors like solidarity or communion ( Locke, 2005 ). This framework suggests that the SMI and control images in our study, might have prompted comparisons along distinct dimensions, potentially contributing to the unexpected results. Horizontal and vertical comparisons have distinct predictors, guiding individuals to evaluate attributes as better or worse (vertical) or as similar or different (horizontal) to themselves ( Locke, 2005 ). Unfortunately, our social comparison measure could not differentiate these dimensions, limiting result interpretation. However, it’s plausible that the images presented to the SMI group, rich in agentic attributes and status-related symbols (e.g., designer items), primed vertical comparisons. In contrast, the control group’s images, lacking these attributes, conveyed a larger sense of relatability and similarity, facilitating horizontal comparisons ( Locke, 2005 ).

Considering the various theoretical frameworks discussed, we conclude that exposure to SMI images impacted distinct self-esteem dimensions differently. This could be attributed to various social comparison mechanisms, including contrasting and assimilative upwards comparisons as well as emotional contagion processes and affective responses. Participants potentially simultaneously engaged in contrastive upwards comparisons with SMIs, associated with lower appearance-related self-esteem, leading to a negative indirect effect but also assimilative upwards comparisons or emotional contagion processes, which seemed to have linked SMI images with higher social and performance-related self-esteem in a direct relationship.

Our study highlights the complex nature of online social comparison processes, demonstrating that the relationship between viewing SMI images on Instagram, social comparison and self-esteem is more intricate than expected. Our results support the idea that SMIs are a potent source of self-evaluative information, capable of evoking upward comparisons, which were previously considered as harmful. Our results align with contemporary research, highlighting the ambivalent consequences of online comparisons on self-esteem. On one hand, we provide evidence that exposure SMIs’ positive self-presentation on Instagram may not necessarily ruin viewers’ self-evaluations and self-esteem, contrary to prior research. Instead, our study shows that such images may even temporarily boost self-esteem, possibly through upward assimilation or emotional contagion processes. However, it is important to acknowledge that these upward comparison processes may also have negative consequences on individuals’ self-esteem regarding physical appearance.

5.2. The moderating role of resilience

Previous studies have linked upward social comparison in SNS environments to negative psychological outcomes, but few have explored protective factors ( Verduyn et al., 2017 ). In our investigation, we examined resilience as a potential moderator in social media contexts regarding exposure to SMI content, social comparison, and state self-esteem. Although our preliminary analyses indicated positive correlations between individual resilience, social comparison, and state self-esteem, it did not emerge as a moderator. This implies that resilience may be more closely associated to an individual’s general disposition toward social comparison and self-esteem, rather than explicitly moderating these variables in social media. Considering the complex dynamics of social media interactions in our study, other moderators like self-concept could have a stronger impact on responses to SMI content ( Carter and Vartanian, 2022 ). Carter and Vartanian (2022) highlight the role of self-concept clarity in moderating the connection between exposure to thin-ideal images and body dissatisfaction through appearance-social comparison, suggesting that individuals with a less defined self-concept tend to engage in social comparisons to understand their societal role. Future research should explore if other moderators can explain the effects of positively-biased SMI images.

5.3. Limitations and implications

One major limitation of this study is the small sample size, potentially impacting statistical power and limiting the detection of significant effects in the moderated mediation analysis of resilience. A larger sample size would enable a deeper investigation of the suppression effect and enhance the detection of both direct and indirect effects. Furthermore, the sample only included female students, justified by research indicating gender differences in social media impacts. While our findings provide insights into women’s experiences, their generalizability to other genders remains limited. Future studies should employ a more diverse sample of various demographic and socioeconomic groups. It’s worth noting that our experimental manipulation of image type through a questionnaire may not fully replicate the experience of scrolling through Instagram, lacking crucial features like access to comments. As users spend more time on social media ( DataReportal, 2022 ), the observed effects might be more pronounced in the real app usage. Another limitation lies in our use of the Allan and Gilbert (1995) scale for social comparison, which conflates comparison direction with comparison frequency due to its semantic differential scale and item wording. Moreover, the scale mixes items related to both vertical and horizontal dimensions, complicating result interpretation. Given its publication year, like the self-esteem measure, it lacks validation for online settings, raising concerns about reliability and validity. Future studies should prioritize developing suitable measures for assessing social comparison in social media contexts. Lastly, our study exclusively featured SMI profiles with large audiences and similar content types. Prior research suggests that SMIs with smaller audiences are perceived as more authentic and less relatable as their popularity grows ( Ruiz-Gómez, 2019 ). Future studies should incorporate SMIs with varying audience size to explore their impact on perceived similarity and identification levels.

6. Conclusion

In conclusion, this study offers new insights into the impact of social media on psychological well-being by investigating the relationships between exposure to positivity-biased images of SMIs, social comparison, state self-esteem, and resilience. Our findings revealed a more complex web of relationships than expected, highlighting both potential risks and unexpected self-esteem benefits. We uncovered a suppression effect, possibly due to simultaneous contrastive/assimilative comparisons and emotional contagion mechanisms, with distinct effects on self-esteem dimensions. Although individual resilience correlated with higher state self-esteem and positive self-evaluation in social comparison, it did not moderate the influence of SMI images on psychological outcomes. Our findings underscore the importance of promoting digital literacy and emotional well-being in a society deeply affected by social media, guiding individuals in mindful online interactions. This study aligns with recent research challenging the notion that social media and influencers inherently harm mental well-being, emphasizing the necessity for future research into the intricate interplay of psychological variables within social media environments.

Data availability statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Ethics statement

The present study was conducted in full accordance with the Ethical Guidelines of the German Association of Psychologists and the American Psychological Association. Ethical approval was not required for this study at the respective university. However, the framework of this study was ethically approved and exclusively makes use of anonymous questionnaires. We had no reasons to assume that our survey would induce persistent negative psychological states in the participants.

Author contributions

All authors developed the study concept and contributed to the study design. LR collected and analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript draft. JJ and TM supervised the study and revised the manuscript draft. All authors approved the final version to be published and agree to take responsibility and be held accountable for the integrity of the data and accuracy of the data analysis.

The publication of this article was funded by the University of Mannheim.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Keywords: social media influencers, self-esteem, social comparison, resilience, moderated mediation model, experimental research design

Citation: Rüther L, Jahn J and Marksteiner T (2023) #influenced! The impact of social media influencing on self-esteem and the role of social comparison and resilience. Front. Psychol . 14:1216195. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1216195

Received: 03 May 2023; Accepted: 11 September 2023; Published: 04 October 2023.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2023 Rüther, Jahn and Marksteiner. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Tamara Marksteiner, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

The International Journal of Indian Psychȯlogy

The International Journal of Indian Psychȯlogy

The Influence of Social Media on Adolescent Body Image Perception, Self-Esteem

| Published: May 12, 2024

research about self esteem and social media

This study investigates the complex interactions between adolescents’ use of Social Media (SM) and their perceptions of their bodies and esteem. The research examines how the pervasiveness of SM in modern culture impacts the cognitive processes and emotional responses of adolescents through a thorough examination of the body of current literature and empirical analysis based in social psychology. Using multiple regression analysis and a cross-sectional correlational methodology, the study investigates the associations between SM use, self-esteem (SE), and body image assessment in 128 adolescents selected using quota sampling. The results of this study show a strong negative relationship between teenage SM use and SE, suggesting that higher involvement levels are associated with lower SE. Nonetheless, SM impact on how people perceive their bodies is less pronounced and not statistically significant. These results emphasize the intricacy of SM influence on teenage mental health and the necessity for more investigation to fully comprehend its underlying mechanisms.

SM , Adolescents , Body Image Perception , SE , Social Psychology , Digital Natives , Mental Health , Correlation Analysis , Regression Analysis , Literature Review

research about self esteem and social media

This is an Open Access Research distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any Medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

© 2024, Fatima, S.

Received: April 29, 2024; Revision Received: May 08, 2024; Accepted: May 12, 2024

Sameena Fatima @ [email protected]

research about self esteem and social media

Article Overview

Published in   Volume 12, Issue 2, April-June, 2024

Social media: Abstinence can boost self-esteem

Social media: Abstinence can boost self-esteem

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  • Environment

Social media: Abstinence can boost self-esteem

For many young people on social media platforms such as , and TikTok, it’s hard to escape the beauty ideals and standards that are circulating, and these trends can be dangerous. At the moment, what seems to be “in” are a slim waist, round buttocks, and skinny legs.

Ten years ago, the “thigh gap” was all the rage. This is a space between the inner thighs that remains visible when women stand upright with their feet touching. Also known as “legging legs,” its proponents argue that anyone can achieve the look — with enough dieting and exercise.

Though for most women with a healthy body weight it is considered dangerous to aspire to having a thigh gap, not everybody seems aware of this.

“Is a thigh gap healthy?” and, “How to get a thigh gap fast?” are just two of the questions that pop up in a quick Google search. “Tiny,” “skinny,” and “super slim” waist challenges abound. One consists of ensuring that a waist is so narrow that another person can comfortably wrap their arm around it and drink from a water bottle. 

“What I eat in a day” videos have also become popular, with young people, often women, recording in great detail what they claim is their regular diet on an ordinary day — mostly low-carb and sugar-free.

On the other hand, , with advocates arguing that people should accept their bodies the way they are. But social media users are unlikely to come across such content unless they actively seek it out, because social media algorithms are guided by users’ search results and established viewing preferences.

Self-esteem boosted in a week

Research has consistently shown that social media can have an impact on users’ self-esteem. A recent study by York University in the Canadian city of Toronto explored the effects of taking a break from social media for a short period of time. It found that the self-esteem and body images of women who stopped using social networks for just one week were significantly improved.

The researchers divided 66 female students into two groups, one of which continued to consume social media as usual, while the other had . They had all been asked in advance how they felt about their bodies and whether they would like to look like models.

When asked the same questions a week later, the body images of those who had refrained from social media had improved, particularly of those most likely to have internalized thin beauty ideals.

The authors said that it was rare to see such large effect sizes in this area of psychology research. They added that the improvements might be explained not only by the break from social media, but also by the fact the participants presumably replaced social media consumption with healthier behaviors, such as spending time with friends, playing sports, or spending time outdoors.

Use of social media platforms on the rise

Generally, people find it difficult to detach themselves from social media, particularly younger generations. Indeed, the average amount of time people spend on social media platforms has increased over the years.

In January, Meta, the tech giant that operates and Instagram, said that it would hide “age-inappropriate” content from the accounts of young people, provided they did not lie about their age.

So far, however,  have shown little success, and meager compliance from tech companies obliged to enforce them. The , for example, designed in part to protect minors, requires network operators to delete or hide particularly problematic content, such as the glorification of eating disorders. But a report by the global nonprofit initiative Reset showed that not even 30% of harmful content was deleted when necessary. It even found that the social media platform tended to delete even less than that. Earlier this year, however, it did shut down the “legginglegs” hashtag.

This article was originally written in German.

The post Social media: Abstinence can boost self-esteem appeared first on Deutsche Welle .

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    2.1. The mediating role of social comparisons. Previous research underscores social comparisons' role in mediating SNS effects on self-esteem (Tiggeman and Zaccardo, 2015; Krause et al., 2021; Midgley et al., 2021).Instagram's visual nature and editing features encourage positively biased self-presentation that can drive harmful upwards comparisons, mainly for those feeling inadequate to ...

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    2.2. The moderating role of individual resilience. Resilience, the ability to adapt and rebound from stress and adversity aided by personal, social and situational resources (Windle, 2011), is linked to self-esteem through positive emotions (Benetti and Kambouropoulos, 2006).However, limited research explores individual resilience in social media settings.

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  25. Social media: Abstinence can boost self-esteem

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