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How does online communication affect young people’s mental well-being?

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Rebecca Anthony, Research Associate at DECIPHer and Wolfson Center for Young People’s Mental Health, discusses her new paper Young People’s Online Communication and its Association with Mental Well-being: Results from the 2019 Student Health and Well-being Survey

Interpersonal communication is one of the most common activities for young people to engage with online. Most young people have a social media profile and frequently use the internet to communicate. According to recent statistics, 99% of 12- to 15 year olds are connected to the internet, and 95% report using social media before and after school daily (Home Office, 2020).

The majority of research so far has examined the association between the time spent online and depression, anxiety, mental and well-being symptoms. However, grouping together all forms of social media doesn’t allow for nuances; for example, what young people are doing and who they’re engaging with. There are huge variations to what people are doing online. Going on TikTok and watching YouTube videos isn’t the same as direct messaging a friend or playing video games online with friends you’ve seen at school that day.

Our methods

We used data from the Student Health and Well-being Survey, a biannual survey administered to 11-to-16 year old secondary school pupils in Wales developed from the World Health Organisations Health Behaviour in School Aged Children survey (the HBSC survey).

The survey aims to monitor adolescent health behaviors in Wales to increase our understanding and inform policy. It covers a huge amount of themes, such as mental health and well-being, school life, physical activity and diet, family life, social relationships, substance use and gambling. In 2019, 119,000 students from 198 schools across Wales completed the survey, making it a fantastic resource that provides a nationally representative sample of adolescents in Wales.

We looked at responses from over 38,000 children and young people – the sub sample of the main survey – who were asked about their online communication behaviors. We used multivariate models to assess the relationship between who adolescents were communicating with online and their mental well-being. Within these regression models, we controlled for confounders such as passive social media use – i.e. using social media to escape from negative feelings, friendship quality, how they perceive their friendships, their relationships with friends and cyber bullying.

Watch this video abstract from Rebecca Anthony on her ACAMH 2023 Special Issue paper Young people’s online communication and its association with mental well-being: results from the 2019 student health and well-being survey

Key findings

We found that students are highly engaged on social networking sites. Many were using these sites daily and we found frequent online communication with their best friends and their wider friendship groups were associated with higher levels of well-being. However, the frequency of online contact with virtual friends, i.e. friends they haven’t met in real life, only made online, was associated with poorer well-being and it had a much larger negative association for girls than boys.

A more nuanced view?

Conclusions from our study are that research investigating time spent online only may be over-simplistic and doesn’t consider some specific nuances, such as what they’re doing and who they are engaging with.

Rather than overemphasizing the significance of time spent online and casting online communication as something that needs to be heavily monitored and controlled, educators and parents should acknowledge the possible benefits of online communication with existing friendship groups, while limiting harms. We felt that interventions to improve young people’s well-being should also consider these positive associations.

The Child and Adolescent Mental Health (ACAMH) 2023 Special Issue paper Young people’s online communication and its association with mental well-being: results from the 2019 student health and well-being survey can be read here: Authors: Rebecca Anthony, Honor Young, Gillian Hewitt, Luke Sloan, Graham Moore, Simon Murphy and Steven Cook.

This work led by researchers at DECIPHer was supported by joint funding from Ministers of Education and Mental Health at Welsh Government, Health and Care Research Wales and the Wolfson Centre for Young People’s Mental Health. The authors thank all school staff and students who completed the survey.

With special thanks to ACAMH for allowing us to reproduce their video.