“Fear of the effects of smartphones and social media seems comparable to the fear of radio, television or Dungeons & Dragons that was experienced by earlier generations. Society is afraid that it will damage young people, and for more than a decade now researchers have been trying to find out whether young people have been experiencing adverse effects,” Griffioen explains.
“But it now appears that the majority of these studies is worthless, because the research methods that were used turned out to be unreliable or inappropriate. Such questionnaires often ask young people to indicate what they do on social media, including their frequency of use and length of the time that they spend on there. But young people can hardly even remember what they’ve seen or done on social media at the end of the day, let alone at the end of the week. What’s more, these questionnaires work like a one-way street: as a researcher you have no idea how the question will be interpreted and there’s no opportunity to engage in a conversation with these young people so that you can explore their answers in more detail.”
Griffioen started to look for more effective ways for analysing social media use. “One of the ways in which we achieved this was to leave young people alone for ten minutes while we secretly monitored what they were doing on their smartphones. We then engaged them in conversation so that they could reflect on what they’d done during that period, and reflect on their experience of using social media in the broader sense. We used our video recording of them to help them remember things, which provided us with a clear picture of their relationship with smartphones and social media. It required more effort, but it gave us greater insight.”
The main conclusion was that, on the whole, there was no connection between social media use and how these young people felt in the short term. “But the conversations did reveal that our relationship with social media is very complex. And this complexity largely depends on the person, on the context, and on all sorts of other factors,” Griffioen points out. “For example, think about the coronavirus pandemic: during the lockdowns, a lot of people were stuck at home and there was little room for social contact away from the house. We consequently saw that social media had a very positive effect during this period - even more than is normally the case - because it still provided some form of contact. The same applies, for example, if you live in a sparsely populated area where no one shares your interests: social media can then prove to be a godsend.”
Impact of public debate
There is one thing that does seem to have an impact on how young people experience smartphone use and that is public debate. Griffioen: “During my conversations with young people about their smartphone use, I often heard them say things like ‘I know I shouldn’t be using it, but...’ and ‘It’s such a waste of time, but...’. The constant stream of stories about smartphone addiction and other horror stories in our midst and in the media has created the idea that smartphones must be bad. If we can improve our research methods, it will give us a better idea of the real impact that smartphones are having, and we might also be able to remove the inherent stigma. It’s difficult to feel good about something when society keeps saying that it’s bad, even though there’s no scientific basis for it.”