SOCIAL NETWORKING: More time spent online makes children less happy with their lives

Children who spend more time social networking online feel less happy with a number of different aspects of their lives. That is the key finding of new research by Emily McDool, Philip Powell, Jennifer Roberts and Karl Taylor, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Bristol in April 2017.

The research shows that the more time children spend chatting on social networks such as Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp and Instagram, the less happy they feel about their school work, their school attended, their appearance, their family and their life overall. But they do feel happier about their friendships.

Spending just one hour a day on social networks reduces the probability of being completely happy with life overall by approximately 14 percentage points. That is three times as large as the estimated adverse effect on children''s wellbeing of being in a single parent household (4.6 percentage points), and is also larger than the effect of playing truant (10.3 percentage points).

The research also reveals that boys and girls may be affected differently by social network use. Girls are more adversely affected than boys, as it makes them feel less happy about five specific areas of their life, in particular about their appearance and school attended. For boys, it makes them feel less happy with their friendships, but happier about their school work.

The researchers explore three explanations for their results. They find some support for the idea that reduced happiness may be due to making social comparisons with others or cyberbullying, but no support for the theory that time on social networks has an adverse effect because it detracts from time spent doing other beneficial activities.

The new study uses information from a large representative sample of around 4,000 10 to 15 year olds from the UK Household Longitudinal Study. The analysis of these data is designed to deal with important methodological issues, so as to get as close as possible to estimating a causal effect of social network use on wellbeing, rather than simply saying social networking is associated with poor wellbeing.

The advent of online social networking is one aspect of childhood that has changed dramatically in the past decade, and is causing concern among policy-makers and other bodies responsible for safeguarding children.

Around 92% of 16 to 24 year olds use online social networks and while most sites stipulate a minimum user age of 13, few apply any checks, and a survey for the children''s BBC channel found that more than three quarters of 10 to 12 year olds also have social media accounts.

There are concerns that social media use is associated with low self-esteem and common mental health problems. The NSPCC has recently cited social media as a major cause of the dramatic increase in the numbers of children admitted to hospital as a result of self-harming.

This research suggests that children''s time spent chatting online should be regulated in order to encourage greater life satisfaction.

''Social Media Use and Young People''s Wellbeing'' will be presented by Philip Powell at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Bristol in April 2017. The working paper is available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2886783. Emily McDool, Philip Powell, Jennifer Roberts and Karl Taylor are at the Department of Economics, University of Sheffield. This research is part of a project funded by the UK EPSRC research grant EP/L003635/1 Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy (CEDE).