The ambivalent relationship between young people and networks: they have their risks but they need them

Social networks have been pointed out to try to explain the documented increase in mental health problems among adolescents and young people.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
22 May 2023 Monday 15:07
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The ambivalent relationship between young people and networks: they have their risks but they need them

Social networks have been pointed out to try to explain the documented increase in mental health problems among adolescents and young people. But the negative image of its use, with the promotion of insecurities, comparisons or harassment, contrasts with the opinion of the users themselves and with the provisional conclusions of a recent study published in Nature Mental Health.

The magazine documents the finding of harmful relationships, such as concentration problems in girls, but also reveals that such platforms are far from the worst influence on adolescent mental health. In fact, of the 17 factors included in the study, among which are bullying or dissatisfaction with school, social networks would be towards the end of the list.

Users, young people and adolescents, corroborate this idea. "Having a mobile phone and social networks has helped me because I met a lot of people who are still friends today," says Leo Villalba, 25, who at 12 had "the typical Nokia to call" and the following year they gave him a Blackberry device, with which he was already able to access the internet and various platforms.

“They made it easy for me to meet other people with similar tastes or things in common. I remember talking to people on the other side of the country about topics that I couldn't talk about in person. [The networks] gave me the security of being able to meet people and they also helped me learn to socialize”, adds Villalba.

Héctor García, 14, also got his first smartphone at 13. “The truth is that I haven't had any problems. My parents don't check my mobile, but they tell me not to be stupid, to think twice about things before posting them, ”he comments. His favorite networks are TikTok and Instagram, a taste shared by the majority of adolescents and young people who plague these platforms.

"I would stay with 'Insta' because it is a network where you can show your day and also where you socialize the most," says Julio Torga Laviana, 19. This photography student, in addition to having met people through said platform, has created an account in which he uploads the images he takes to promote them, something he did not do when he was a teenager.

“The use of social networks is not done in a vacuum, but in a personal, family, school and social context. We see boys and girls with an intensive use of them with satisfactory social relationships, or academic or personal success. So it is not so much the use itself, but rather the context of its use that is affecting mental health”, says Eulàlia Hernández, from the ePsychology Working Group of the Official College of Psychology of Catalonia and professor and researcher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalonia (UOC).

Precisely, the recently published research points to the consideration of intrapersonal and interpersonal factors as key to understanding how networks affect mental health. An example of the former would be the behavior of boys and girls, and of the latter, the family. To do this, the team from the University of Manchester (United Kingdom) behind the work has developed a network model that captures the interrelationships of the various variables studied.

The researchers had data from more than 12,000 adolescents between the ages of 10 and 15 taken in multiple batches over a decade. This allowed them to situate the use of social networks not only as a possible predictor of discomfort, but also as a result. For example, in the case of boys, it was seen that less family support predicted abuse of the platforms. The weakness of the research lies in the fact that it is difficult to establish causalities beyond the relationships found, something shared with most studies on the subject.

“A person with an underlying mental disorder may spend many hours on technology, but it is not the cause of the disorder. If he did not have it, he would show another behavior. Putting all your weight on technology can be a mistake”, says Antoni Baena, director of the UOC's Master's in Digital Health and coordinator of the ePsychology Working Group. In this sense, Leo Villalba mentions that the networks allowed him to find more information on practices related to eating disorders, something that he had already been doing.

The users interviewed for this article explain that they spend between one hour and a maximum of ten hours a day using their mobile phones, especially on digital platforms. “I don't spend many hours a day because I'm at school from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.,” says Héctor García, who is aware of how absorbing platforms can be. “TikTok is fine because it takes away your boredom, but you have to control it. I once spent three hours straight watching videos”, he comments.

Héctor is very clear about how to be in networks in a healthy way: “If you have spent six hours you can find out a lot of things, but you will lose a lot of time. Do not watch 'Insta' when you are eating with your family, for example, but when you are alone or at any time, you can perfectly spend half an hour or 45 minutes. A good use, without doing nonsense or anything, can be good. And do not believe everything you see, because there are many invented things.

Luciana Abán, 15 years old, in addition to citing the entertainment and socialization offered by the networks, also mentions the addictive part along with other disadvantages. “You have very little privacy and you always have to keep an eye on what you upload because people can judge you,” she says. She has on occasion uploaded videos to TikTok that she later deleted out of "shame or fear that my classmates would say something to me." "It is true that I could feel judged in real life, but on social networks you are more open to more people and many prefer to hate on the networks rather than in person."

Although digital platforms mean transferring real life to a virtual environment, they favor one's exposure to others. You can take advantage of this, as Julio Torga Laviana does by uploading his photos, but it also increases the chances of being criticized or attacked.

"They are a vehicle that allow you to interact with more people, but you have to know how to protect yourself," says Antoni Baena. “It's like going to a disco: you don't know everyone. Something similar happens in networks, only there it is more difficult to protect yourself”.

Both he and Eulàlia Hernández speak of education and control in the use of the platforms and not of prohibition. “To communicate or to meet is something useful and yes, it would be a problem if you could not communicate with someone for a week. I would think that something has happened to you”, reflects Luciana Abán on what would happen to her if the use of networks were banned for a few days. Activating the parental control system is one of the least restrictive possibilities mentioned by psychologists.

The current law of the Spanish educational system, the LOMLOE, includes in the secondary curriculum, as well as primary and baccalaureate, digital competence as one of the several essential performances to acquire. With it, it is intended that students, once this stage is finished, can digitally solve both academic problems and their daily lives. Digital well-being, privacy, problem solving or computational and critical thinking are some of the learning contemplated.

Eulàlia Hernández goes further and points out, in addition, promoting the development of social skills, facilitating a stable environment or contexts of social support, and promoting self-esteem and life satisfaction to avoid the overuse of platforms and take care of the mental health of girls and boys .

The social networks themselves can serve as learning spaces. In addition to socializing and entertaining, Leo Villalba uses them "above all to stay informed." He comments that while there is a lot of false information out there, the platforms offer him the chance to “follow educators or therapists, people who inform you well, or news pages.”

The eHealthLit4Teen project, coordinated by the UOC with Hernández as the main researcher, has the ultimate goal of proposing an intervention for literacy in mental and emotional health using digital platforms as a basic tool.

“We analyze the use of networks in adolescents, how they use them, how they learn, how they are informed, to later co-design some type of intervention with them that can be disseminated through networks”, explains the researcher. Data collection began in September of last year in a representative sample of the thousand school districts in Barcelona made up of more than a thousand students from first to fourth grade.