Henry Hepburm

Teenagers are as happy as ever, despite social media

We fear the impact of social media on children – but it seems that teenagers are just as happy as ever, says Henry Hepburn

Despite social media, teenagers are happy

All of us have a tendency to frame the world in terms of change: we tell ourselves that policemen are getting younger, potholes more prevalent and politicians less trustworthy.

Sometimes these perceptions are borne out by the facts; sometimes they are not. Regardless, we stubbornly hold on to this idea of constant flux, perhaps because by identifying patterns of change – no matter how spurious – we find meaning and narrative in a chaotic world.

How does this play out in education? There are plenty of tropes: exams are getting easier, pupils more unruly and teachers more stressed out, to pluck just three.

Rarely, however, do we perceive stasis – how often do you hear anyone casually observing that policemen look much the same as they always have, or that exams are as hard as they’ve always been? This is why longitudinal studies such as Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) are so important: they give cold, hard facts that often challenge our biases.

Of course, we still tend to latch on to the data that shows dramatic change, because – as with any potboiler novel or Hollywood blockbuster – we’d get quickly get bored with a plot that never went anywhere.

So, when the latest findings from HBSC – for which Scottish data was first gathered in 1990 – were published last week, certain things jumped out. Some 90 per cent of 11-year-olds now own a mobile phone, for example, while problematic social media use is an emerging problem (albeit affecting only 9 per cent of adolescents) and more pupils reported being stressed by schoolwork and having sleep difficulties than a few years ago.

And, while we tend to pick up on change more quickly than stasis, we also highlight negative change more readily than positive change: one wonders how aware the public is of dramatic falls over recent decades in adolescents’ consumption of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, sugary drinks, crisps and chips. Similarly, when a new and potentially disruptive influence comes along, we tend to fixate on its negative potential. Look at the febrile debates about whether schools should prohibit smartphones. But when you hear that 92 per cent of 15-year-olds keep a mobile in their bedroom at night – and you grew up yourself in an era when such technology didn’t even exist – it’s natural to feel a twinge of alarm.

However, one researcher at the HBSC launch in Edinburgh cautioned against knee-jerk reactions: while we should carefully monitor mobile technology’s impact, we should not regard it as an inherently pernicious influence. If, for example, a relationship were damaging offline, then it would also be damaging online; but, by the same token, a supportive network of friends in the offline world would also be a positive force online. All our reasonable concerns about social media, advised the researcher, should not cloud the fact that it could help a young person to feel more connected.

Amid all HBSC’s up and downs, two long-term trends were fascinating. First, 27 per cent of girls in 2018 liked school a lot – the exact same figure as in 1998; while 23 per cent of boys in 2018 said they did – the exact same figure as in 1990. Second, 87 per cent of boys reported high life satisfaction in 2018, against 90 per cent in 2002, while the 83 per cent of girls with high life satisfaction compared with 82 per cent in 2002.

Secondary school will likely always be a tough time for teenagers as they face pressure to garner good qualifications and think hard about how their life might pan out, while contending with the emotional gauntlet that is adolescence. Yet, the vast majority are, in the grand scheme, happy about their lives.

We must guard against complacency, of course, and be alert to emerging problems – but also feel reassured that, in the end, most of the kids will be alright.


This article originally appeared in the XX Month 2020 issue under the headline “Teenagers are as happy as ever – despite our fear of social media"

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