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News article23 April 2024Joint Research Centre4 min read

ECAT discusses new paper on social media and adolescents’ mental health at ERYICA’s General Assembly


Scientific Officer at the European Centre for Algorithmic Transparency (ECAT) Arianna Sala participated yesterday at ERYICA’s 35th General Assembly in Bucharest. Arianna took part in a panel discussion about youth information in times of Artificial Intelligence, where she shared the stage with Virgil Spiridon, Head of Operations Cybercrime Programme Office of the Council of Europe; Irina Buzu, AI Expert at the Council of Europe’s AI Expert Group; and Jaana Fedotoff, former ERYICA President. 

The panel was an excellent opportunity to present the latest piece of research published by ECAT researchers Arianna Sala, Lorenzo Porcaro and Emilia Gómez titled Social Media Use and Adolescents’ Mental Health and Well-being: An Umbrella Review, which appeared recently in the journal Computers in Human Behavior Reports.  

According to Eurostat, 84% of European youth used the internet daily to participate in social networks during 2022. ECAT’s umbrella review focuses on the impact of this use on adolescents’ mental health and well-being. While the research surfaces interesting insights from selected literature on how social media affects teenagers’ mental health, it also discusses how to bring structural change through risk mitigation strategies and research opportunities brought along by the Digital Services Act (DSA). 

If we can create social media that's more responsible and puts users' interests first, especially for vulnerable kids and teens, it could make a big difference in how people use these platforms, Arianna explains. In other words, instead of just telling people to be careful on their own, we should also look at how the platforms themselves can be designed better to help everyone use social media in a healthier way.

Insights into adolescents’ mental health and social media use 

The study shows the relationship between adolescents’ mental health and social media use is complex. It depends mainly on the interrelation of three factors: demographic and psychosocial characteristics, type and purpose of social media use, and design of social media platforms. Because these are highly personal attributes, the authors highlight the need for more inclusive research to obtain a deeper understanding on social media impact on teenagers’ mental health. For instance, according to the literature analysed, girls tend to spend more time on social media, which puts them under more pressure from beauty standards, affecting their body image and self-esteem – in turn making them the majority audience looking for eating disorder content on social media. 

In a similar trend, each social media platform has its own distinct design, way of using it, and types of interactions. The umbrella review shows that papers covering specific platforms may be more informative and therefore more helpful in developing practices to limit possible negative impacts. In an ever-changing landscape, the authors highlight the importance of monitoring the use of mainstream and emerging social media, especially considering that teenagers are often early adopters of these technologies. 

"As researchers, we must be extremely aware of the potential impact of social media use," says Lorenzo. "It's important to start a conversation with young people to help them make a more conscious use of social media and improve their algorithmic literacy, while trying to avoid a criminalisation of their new ways of socialising."  

Opportunities for risk mitigation and future research 

When looking at risk mitigation strategies on existing literature, the analysis found an evident imbalance. Recommendations made to users, adolescents’ families and teachers are much more widespread than recommendations made to platforms on more ethical design. This puts the burden of responsibility heavily on individuals, rather than on social media platforms combatting the effects of persuasive design. Authors argue that while people should be educated in digital skills to make more sensible use of social media, structural and systemic change won’t happen if platforms don’t introduce an ethical design that considers the best interest of minors. 

Considering future research opportunities, the umbrella reviews shows that lack of access to platforms’ APIs is hindering scholars’ independent work. With limited access to platform data, the field relies mostly on reverse engineering and correlation to conduct their studies. However, authors hope that under Article 40 of the DSA, eligible researchers will now access platform data to produce research that contributes to the understanding of systemic risks in the EU, particularly related to the impact of social media use on adolescents’ mental health and well-being.   

"We need to advance on the scientific understanding of the impact of certain aspects of social media use on mental health, for instance, from gender or cultural aspects to the effect of certain algorithmic approaches or interface designs," adds Emilia. "The involvement of the scientific community (from varied disciplines such as cognitive scientists, computer scientists or humanities) is key to ensure those systems are built WITH people and FOR people's well-being." 


Read the full paper here

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Publication date
23 April 2024
Joint Research Centre