Digital well-being through social media

Smartphones and social media are part of our lives, raising understandable concerns, especially when younger people use them. However, online experiences can be as negative as they are positive. The way to the psychological well-being of adults and adolescents is through the conscious use of such technologies, not their avoidance. This is one of the results of the HappyB research project, supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and carried out in collaboration with UniversitÓ della Svizzera italiana and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The project leader is Laura Marciano, post-doctoral researcher.

Launched in 2022, HappyB is a longitudinal study that will follow the evolution of the digital habits and well-being of around 1600 male and female students from four Ticino high schools for two years. Three surveys are planned - the results of the second one, which took place at the end of 2022, are currently being analysed - and an intensive study using an app installed on smartphones to measure usage and well-being levels.

Finstagram, a double profile for yourself

"The technological landscape is evolving rapidly, and introducing a new feature is enough to change users’ online habits: it is difficult for scientific research to keep up. Suffice it to say that most of the literature on the subject currently concerns Facebook, a social network that younger people hardly ever use," explained Laura Marciano. On the other hand, WhatsApp is used daily by practically all teenagers, followed by Instagram and YouTube (around 90%) and then TikTok (66%), Pinterest (55%) and Snapchat (55%).

HappyB’s survey highlighted the rise, also in Switzerland, of a phenomenon that previous research had not detected: Instagram. "From the data collected, it appears that most young people have two or more profiles on Instagram: one is more personal, generally reserved for friends and with more ’sincere’ content, while the other is public and more edited." This phenomenon, Marciano pointed out, is linked to the need to better define, also on social media, one’s identity, the development of which takes place at that age. "But this phenomenon also shows how young people feel a strong social pressure that pushes them to present a public image of themselves that is distant from how they feel. And adults are also partly responsible for this social pressure, as they are often the first to give an exclusively positive image of themselves on social media, hiding their frailties and difficulties."

Positive and negative experiences

The results of the HappyB project showed a link between the type of online experiences and well-being. In some cases, the link is positive, and in others, harmful. In other words: online experiences and social media can promote subjective and psychological well-being. "Online dynamics mirror offline dynamics: it is the same things that make us happy, i.e. quality interactions based on an empathetic relationship of mutual understanding". Feeling excluded or undervalued decreases well-being, while feeling part of a group or talking in moments of loneliness increases it. As far as gender is concerned, there is a slight prevalence of negative experiences among girls compared to boys.

"The difficulties are in the relationship with what we could call ’acquaintances’: with friends there is closeness and mutual understanding, celebrities, on the contrary, are so distant that they do not trigger a real confrontation with themselves, while with acquaintances there is a comparison that can lead to feeling inadequate."

Managing the time spent online

This is one of several aspects to consider if one wants to understand how to use social media to promote well-being. "It is unthinkable to completely give up one’s digital life and the relationships that occur on social media: we see from the literature that total deprivation leads to low happiness levels. We see that there is an ’optimal time’: spending between an hour and an hour and a half a day has a positive effect, but it is not just a question of quantity. One of the hypotheses that needs to be further investigated is that the most positive effects come with a structured use of social media and, in general, the time spent online to enhance as much as possible those authentic, empathy-based relationships mentioned above. "We see this in the case of so-called obesogenic behaviour: people who have structured days are less at risk of developing obesity; a similar impact could also exist for the negative effects of social media".

But how much do individual choices count, and how much do those of social media that, by adding new features, direct users’ behaviour, for example? "It is a complex issue, but we must keep in mind that, in the end, it is the user who chooses which social media to use. And social media themselves, through algorithms, adapt the experience around the user’s choices. However, these interactions are not always easy to control and often exploit certain trends: we know, for example, that young people tend to prefer new and visual stimuli, such as short videos," Marciano concluded.