Background Connectedness to school, family and peers is a key determinant of adolescent mental health. The relationship between social media use (SMU) and social connectedness is complex, potentially improving closeness to peers, whilst possibly diminishing school connectedness. Evidence to date has been piecemeal and contradictory with particular gaps in research on school and family connectedness. In this qualitative study we explore the relationship between SMU and these three areas of social connectedness using the Displacement Hypothesis and the Stimulation Hypothesis as competing theoretical lenses.
Methods In-depth paired and individual interviews were conducted with nineteen girls and five boys aged 13–14 years in two English secondary schools. Interviews covered various topics relating to SMU and well-being. Interviews were transcribed verbatim, coded and thematically analysed.
Results Thematic analysis of the transcripts identified six themes: (i) ‘Time displacement’, (ii) ‘(Mis)Trust’, (iii) ‘Generational disconnect’, (iv) ‘Personal and group identity’, (v) ‘Keeping in touch’, and (vi) ‘Social obligation’. Results indicated support for both the Displacement and Stimulation Hypotheses. School connectedness was undermined through displacement of time spent on homework and feeling misunderstood by teachers, but enhanced by maintaining relationships with classmates. Family connectedness appeared to be weakened through the same feeling of being misunderstood by parents, not feeling trusted to responsibly navigate SMU or displacing time spent together. However, SMU also provided opportunities for parents to demonstrate trust, to share in entertainment and allowed young people to stay in contact with family members overseas. In line with the Stimulation Hypothesis, connectedness to close friends was strengthened through self-disclosure and a sense of shared identity, but broader peer relationships were undermined by feelings of mistrust. Frequent SMU enabled young people to maintain and expand their social networks but a need to be constantly available was sometimes overwhelming, suggesting an ‘over-stimulation’ effect.
Conclusion Caregivers and teachers should take a nuanced approach to addressing young people’s SMU rather than following the dominant alarmist discourse. A measured approach should be taken, providing clear, reasonable guidance and boundary-setting but also promoting trust and responsible time management, and acknowledging the role of social media in making connections. Understanding and sharing in online experiences is likely to promote social connectedness. Supporting young people to negotiate breathing space in online interactions and prioritising trust over availability in peer relationships may optimise the role of social media in promoting peer connectedness in particular.
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