UC Berkeley researchers found positive social media experiences helped adolescents mitigate loneliness and develop peer relationships during COVID-19 lockdowns, according to a study published Aug. 26.
The research, led by campus research fellow Lucía Magis-Weinberg and her project group, Transitions, found that the quality of screen time is more important than the quantity of time online. Teenagers who found online support reported less loneliness during the pandemic. As a result, Magis-Weinberg suggested adults promote positive online experiences for the youth rather than limited social media usage.
The research is part of a long-term effort to promote digital citizenship and healthy technology usage in the Global South and is one of the first studies to document social media’s impact on mental health in regions outside of Europe and the United States, according to a Berkeley News press release on the topic.
“Friends are important at any life stage, but they are especially important for adolescents,” Magis-Weinberg said in an email. “We believe that digital and social media can be a very useful tool, when used positively and actively, to build and foster relationships with peers. However, social media can also introduce risks.”
According to the press release, the study challenged the assumption that the combination of physical isolation during lockdown and excessive social media usage is a “recipe for a loneliness epidemic.”
Campus professor Stephen Hinshaw echoes the press release’s acknowledgment of the importance of the research. He believes given the international and multicultural impact of the pandemic, peer relationships could be limited.
“This research is provocative and important,” Hinshaw said in an email. “We know, from psychological research over the past few years, that online contacts via social media can be quite helpful or harmful, depending on a number of factors.”
To collect their data, Magis-Weinberg and her team were able to fly to Peru before the pandemic to conduct in-person data collection and analysis. They worked with groups of approximately 500 students and overcame the challenge of working remotely through building strong relationships with school partners and taking advantage of remote instruction.
With online learning, the project team was also able to efficiently collect data, going from working with two schools at a time to gathering information from 65 schools and more than 15,000 students at a time. The team also built a short school course on well-being during lockdown and trained teachers to deliver the information to students remotely.
“In a time in which we are relying heavily on technology for education, connection and entertainment, it is more important than ever to work towards promoting the benefits and minimizing the risks of online environments for all, especially during the formative years of adolescence,” Magis-Weinberg said in an email.