Spending more time on sites such as Facebook has a limited impact on how content adolescents are with their lives, according to the research published in journal PNAS.
Professor Andrew Przybylski, from the University of Oxford, said the findings suggest society should “retire the screen time notion”, and instead focus on whether particular aspects of online behaviour are harmful.
“Applying transparent and innovative statistical approaches we show that social media effects are not a one-way street, they are nuanced, reciprocal, possibly contingent on gender, and arguably trivial in size,” the authors wrote.
Previous research was largely based on correlations, the researchers said, making it difficult to determine whether social media use led to changes in life satisfaction, or changes in life satisfaction influence social media use.
The new study analysed data on 12,000 British teenagers, taken from an eight-year survey of UK households.
Lower life satisfaction led to an increase in social media use and social media use led to lower life satisfaction, but the trends were only “modest”, the authors said. These effects were more evident in females than males.
Prof Przybylski, one of the lead authors, said: “With most of the current debate based on lacklustre evidence, this study represents an important step towards mapping the effects of technology on wellbeing.”
He described screen time as “statistically noisy nonsense”, adding: “On an individual basis, time shouldn’t be the thing that parents are worrying about.
“Thinking about social media like it’s a black box that has kind of a ticking clock on top of it – that way of thinking about screen time is almost certainly wrong.”
Co-lead author Amy Orben, from the University of Oxford, said: “What this shows us is we need to stop looking at social media as a whole and we need to start thinking about the nuances.
“Because if we, for example, find that a specific activity is actually more harmful than the rest, that would actually be an opportunity to sit down with the drawing board and think about what we can do, instead of decrying that everything is bad.”
The researchers called on social media companies to share data on user activity, to help scientists improve understanding in this area.
“With the unknowns of social media effects still substantially outnumbering the knowns, it is critical that independent scientists, policymakers, and industry researchers cooperate more closely,” the authors wrote.
“Social media companies must support independent research by sharing granular user engagement data and participating in large-scale team-based open science.
“Only then will we truly unravel the complex constellations of effects shaping young people in the digital age.”
Commenting on the findings, Dr Max Davie, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This paper suggests that social media has limited effect on teenage life satisfaction.
“However, there are still issues around screen time more generally, and a risk that screen time may interfere with other important activities like sleep, exercise and spending time with family or friends.
“We recommend that families follow our guidance published earlier this year and continue to avoid screen use for one hour before bed since there are other reasons beside mental health for children to need a good night’s sleep.”