AS MAJOR investors urge large technology companies to help deal with smartphone addiction among young people, a research project by a Cork trio has found that using social media sites is having a negative impact on young people and their body image.
16-year-old twins Aoise and Cliona McTaggart and 15-year-old Alison Barry did the research for the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.
The trio are transition year students at Christ King Secondary School in Douglas and their fellow students participated in the study.
Aoife explained why they chose this topic.
“Social media is now more than ever a big part of teenagers’ lives. With the project, we wanted to find out if this had a negative effect, on body image especially. We saw Snapchat and Instagram as the two sites, in particular, we wanted to research.”
They asked a range of different age groups to participate.
“So we took 15 girls from transition year, second year and first year and they took part in a two-week intervention from either one of the sites.
“We wanted to see how it affected them and how they felt before and afterwards, about their own personal body image and how they felt in general about the site and if they think it is contributing to negativity.”
Their results showed signs of what many of us suspect, that the young people benefited from time away from the sites.
“We saw that before the ban the girls were more inclined to compare themselves with others online and were more focused on the likes and the comments they received,” Aoife explained.
“After the ban, we saw how their comparison to others dropped and how they perceive themselves better.”
The students see younger and younger people getting drawn into using these sites, although they think the impact on body image peaks in the mid-teens. “I think, recently, younger girls, say fifth and sixth class, say they are using social media but the emphasis on body image is seen more with 15 and 16-year-olds,” Aoife added.
The girls believe the social media giants — Instagram is owned by Facebook — have a responsibility to manage the impact their sites are having on young people.
“I think they should be aware of the negative consequences and see who is doing what on their sites. Maybe they should monitor the ages of people who are using social media better.”
In the US in recent days, two major Apple investors highlighted their concern about the effects of social media and phone and tablet usage on young people.
The Cork girls found that although there was a lot of interest in their project at school, some of their fellow students either refused to take part or dropped out.
“With Snapchat we had a bit of difficulty getting participants because Snapchat is so popular among students,” Aoife said.
“We had a number of participants drop out because they were so focused on Snapchat, they couldn’t do the two weeks.”
The reluctance was so marked that had to reduce their original research period.
“We were actually planning on doing a longer intervention than two weeks but we had cut it back because there was no interest in a longer period.”
Their teacher Julia White is proud of their work the pupils have put in but emphasised the difficulty of getting participants.
“The girls took it upon themselves to do it and there was a good bit of interest in the project but it was really, really hard to get the students off Snapchat,” she said.
This echoes recent suggestion in US media that mobile apps and social media sites are designed to be addictive and to keep users’ attention as long as possible.
Ms White saw clear evidence of that with a Snapchat feature that records how many days in a row users have been in contact with each other, called a streak.
“It was the streaks, a lot of them have streaks and they were afraid they would lose the streak with their friends,” Ms White explained.
“Some of them were saying they would go off it if they could log in every day to do that one thing. It was a bit crazy.”
She believes the project deserves to do well and hopes the judges will accept the reasons for the low numbers who took part.
“A whole lot of work has gone into it and hopefully it will do well, I think it is really topical at the moment.
“Our main weakness is probably the low numbers because we struggled to get participants.
“But I think the data we did get was very positive and did show big signs of improvement when they did go off the sites.
“The actual results are good so I hope the judges don’t think it is too small of a sample.”