Newswise – Teens from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to report addiction to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and other social media, according to research published in the peer-reviewed magazine log Information, communication and society.
In the first study of its kind, the results show a link between economic inequality and the problematic use of social media platforms and instant messaging apps. The situation is worse in schools where wealth and social differences exist between classmates.
The authors say the findings – based on more than 179,000 schoolchildren in 40 countries – suggest new strategies are needed on social media use that reduce the impact of deprivation.
Action by policy makers could help limit dysfunctional or abnormal behaviors among young people, the authors add. These negative tendencies include the inability to cut screen time or lie to friends and family about social media use.
“These results indicate the potentially harmful influences of inequality at the individual, school, and national level on adolescents’ problematic use of social media,” says lead author Michela Lenzi of the University of Padua, Italy, professor associate degree in psychology.
“Policy makers should develop actions to reduce inequalities in order to limit maladaptive patterns of social media use by adolescents.”
“As the digital divide continues to close in many countries, economic inequalities persist and remain a strong social determinant of adolescent health and wellbeing. Schools are an ideal setting to foster safe and pro-social behavior online.
Many young people use social media on a daily basis and the benefits to well-being are well documented, as are the risks.
Problematic social media use (PSMU) is not formally recognized as a behavioral addiction. However, it is considered a health problem affecting young people.
This study aimed to investigate the links between socio-economic inequalities, measured at the individual, school and national level, and the PSMU of adolescents.
Additionally, the authors assessed the role of peer and family support as moderators of these associations.
The results were based on 179,049 children aged 11, 13 and 15 from 40 countries, including most of Europe and Canada. The evidence comes from the Health Behavior in School-aged Children study, an international collaborative study by the World Health Organization conducted every four years.
Researchers asked children to complete questionnaires to identify addiction-like behaviors associated with social media. Forms were completed anonymously under the classroom supervision of a teacher or trained interviewer.
Any child who reported six or more items was identified as having PSMU. These items included feeling bad when not using social media, trying but failing to spend less time using it, and using social media to escape negative feelings.
An index based on material assets in the household or family activities was used to calculate the deprivation scales. Items included the number of bathrooms and the number of family vacations outside the country in the past year.
The authors measured country wealth and family/peer social support, such as the degree of help provided by relatives and friends. They also took into account the proportion of the population that uses the Internet in each country.
The results showed that adolescents who were relatively more deprived than their classmates and who attended more economically unequal schools were more likely to report UPMU.
The association with a wealth gap between students in the same class was stronger among young people with low peer support. But a link between countries’ income inequality and PSMU was only found among adolescents reporting low levels of family support.
There can be many reasons for the link between economic deprivation and PSMU. One theory suggested by the authors is that sharing images or videos resonates particularly with the most deprived teenagers, as they associate them with power and status.
They suggest that school-based prevention efforts could target “objective and perceived” social class differences among classmates.
Another key component is increased peer support, which the authors found was a protective factor in the relationship between relative deprivation and PSMU.