Research investigating social media use typically focus on late adolescents and young adults, despite a growing number of early adolescents, 93% to 97%—having at least one social media platform. Also, early adolescents are more likely to engage with newer sites, such as Snapchat and Instagram, than older platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Given the evolving landscape of social media, the present study examines the impact of the use of various social media platforms, along with its moderating effects, on adolescents’ academic achievement, using a sample of N = 1,459 early adolescents. Results were such that, as frequency of use on each platform: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat increased, academic achievement decreased. Specific to interaction effects, frequent use of Facebook and Instagram and early adolescents’ academic achievement were moderated by motheradolescent communication; while gender moderated the association between frequent use of Twitter and Snapchat and early adolescents’ academic achievement. Implications are discussed.
Perhaps no other platform has changed the human experience in such a profound way in recent decades as social media. For the purposes of this study, social media refers specifically to the use of social networking sites, in which persons can create profiles, connect with others primarily through chat, and share photos and videos (Raacke & Bonds-Raacke, 2008). The most notable examples of social media include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. Clearly, social media use has changed the ways in which we interact with one another. From communicating and connecting with various persons around the world, to sharing everyday life’s moments through pictures and videos; its prolific use has become a dominant entity in present-day society (Lenhart, 2009).
Rightfully, research investigating the effects of social media use on developmental outcomes has been burgeoning, typically focusing on late adolescents and young adults (Barry et al., 2017). However, a growing number of early adolescents are also engaging in its use. For example, 93% to 97% of 13 to 17 year-olds report using at least one social media platform (Anderson & Jiang, 2018; Barry et al., 2017), with most reporting using three different platforms regularly (Barry et al., 2017). Average daily use, according to a nonprofit organization that collects media and technology data on families, spans 9 hours (Common Sense, 2015).
Despite an increase in research highlighting the negative effects of social media use (Barry et al., 2017), there are also reported benefits. For example, social media provides individuals with an opportunity to form new relationships and strengthen existing ones (O’Keeffe et al., 2011). Some youth benefit from its ease of communication, and its efficiency in assisting with activities such as making plans, and engaging in discussions about day-to-day issues (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008). Nonetheless, general internet and social media use—especially in excess, has been found to interfere with important developmental tasks, such as academic performance. For example, adolescents’ general social media use is associated with falling behind in schoolwork (Espinoza & Juvonen, 2011).
Previous studies linking the use of social media to academic performance have typically focused on Facebook (e.g., Skiera et al., 2015). However, according to Anderson and Jiang (2018), there has been significant increases in use of sites such as Instagram and Snapchat (72% and 69%, respectively vs. Facebook, 51%). Adolescents, especially early adolescents, now are relatively more likely to use Snapchat and Instagram than older social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (Ohannessian & Vannucci, 2020). Given the exponential growth in popularity of other social media sites, especially among younger users, research examining the impact of sites other than Facebook are warranted. The overarching goal of the present study therefore, is to examine the impact of the use of various social media platforms (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat) on early adolescents’ academic achievement. In this study, we also aim to identify factors that could potentially moderate this association, such as parent-adolescent communication and gender.
Adolescents’ Academic Achievement
Perhaps one of the most important developmental milestones for today’s American youth is academic achievement (Arnett, 2004). Reports provided by the National Center for Education Statistics show a fairly substantial increase in U.S. graduation rates, from 79% to 85%, with some parts of the country experiencing a 20% increase between 2010 and 2017 (McFarland et al., 2019). Many achievements throughout one’s life can be attributed to academic success. For example, achievement at the secondary level predicts subsequent achievement through college (Martin et al., 2013). Further, in a comprehensive summary of multiple school-related correlates of life satisfaction from childhood to adulthood compiled by Suldo et al. (2006), the authors found a strong, positive association among students’ perceptions of their academic abilities, teacher support, and overall satisfaction with school.
Despite the wealth of research suggesting the benefits of academic achievement, there remains a disproportionate number of youth who will not achieve academic success. In 2017 for example, the overall status rate for those who dropped out of high school was 5.4%, which accounts for approximately 2.1 million U.S. students. Rates were highest among Black and Hispanic students, compared to White students (McFarland et al., 2019). Such findings shed light on the fact that despite efforts to provide all students with the benefits of education, additional research is needed to identify what factors may be most advantageous to student success, as well as those that may hinder efforts aimed to capitalize on its benefits.
Social Media Use
Today, social media use is arguably one of the most important means of social interaction (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). Its use has seen tremendous growth within a relatively short period, and it continues to gain in popularity. In 2018, a report provided by the Pew Research Center suggested that some 68% of U.S. adults used social media, with Facebook alone accounting for more than 800 million users worldwide (Lenhart, 2009). Though individual differences exist, use spans across various socio-demographic characteristics. For example, Ohannessian and Vannucci (2020) reported racial and ethnic variations in use across Facebook and Twitter. Accordingly, Hispanic adolescents were more likely to use Facebook than Black adolescents, while Black adolescents were more likely to use Facebook than their White peers. Hispanic adolescents also reported more frequent use of Twitter than both their Black and White peers. Regarding gender, girls were more likely to use Instagram and Snapchat in comparison to boys.
Screen Time/Media Use and Children and Adolescents’ Well-Being
Despite the growing media attention surrounding the impact of social media use on children and adolescent’s well-being, relative to other socio-contextual factors (e.g., family conflict, drug use), social media research is underdeveloped. Nonetheless, in a recent study, Orben et al. (2022) explored developmental changes in the association between social media use and life satisfaction. The authors found that social media use and life satisfaction ratings were most negative among younger adolescents. Similarly, Orben et al. (2019) found a significant link between social media use and life satisfaction across an adolescent sample. However, it is important to note that social media use, in and of itself, was not a strong predictor of adolescents’ overall well-being. Lastly, Sampasa-Kanyinga et al. (2019) reported a negative association between social media use, school connectedness, and academic performance within a sample of middle and high school students.
Generally, findings from the aforementioned literature suggests an increase in support of empirical studies that investigate the effects of social media use. More specifically, it provides much needed insights on the effects of social media on the developmental outcomes of youth.
Social Media Use and Academic Achievement Outcomes
Notably, the prolific use of social media has been one factor identified as having a potentially negative impact on achievement outcomes. However, previous studies often focus on older populations, such as older adolescents (Sampasa-Kanyinga et al., 2019), and college students (Su & Huang, 2021), rather than early adolescents. Nonetheless, such studies may provide awareness into the potential effects of social media on arguably, an even more vulnerable population of youth. In a study sampling 348 undergraduate students, Lau (2017) reported that use of various types of media, including social networking sites, blogs, and chat platforms, predicted lower academic performance. Similarly, Skiera et al. (2015) reported that Facebook use was negatively associated with lower grades, within a sample of 117 undergraduate students. In a cross-sectional study of a mixed group of middle and high school students, Sampasa-Kanyinga et al. (2019) found that frequent use of social media (e.g., more than 2 hours per day), was negatively associated with academic performance. Interestingly, Su and Huang (2021) reported that the direct effect of social media use by college students on their academic performance was non-significant.
In addition to direct effects, previous studies have inferred mechanisms between social media use and academic achievement. For example, Su and Huang (2021) investigated and found that student engagement played a mediating role in the association between social media use and college students’ academic performance. Similarly, using a college sample, Malik et al. (2020) found that intrinsic motivation mediated the relationship between students’ use of social media and students’ academic performance.
It is important to note that the aforementioned studies inclusively assessed multiple sources of media (e.g., social networking sites, blogs, and chat platforms), or focused exclusively on Facebook (e.g., Skiera et al., 2015). Also, some studies sampled undergraduate students only (e.g. Lau, 2017), despite the insurgence of social media use among younger adolescents (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). As such, it is not clear whether social media use similarly negatively influences the academic achievement of early adolescents.
Relative to adult samples, fewer studies have focused exclusively on social media use among early adolescents, despite adolescence representing a pivotal developmental period during which individuals are particularly susceptible to deleterious outcomes (Arnett, 2004). Social media provides a context for increased social comparisons and an opportunity for adolescents to explore and shape their identity (Moreno, 2010). Given that adolescence is often also characterized as a period of heightened emotional instability (Arnett, 2004), the feedback adolescents receive, if negative, may greatly hinder the development of healthy self-esteem and a positive sense of self (Correa et al., 2010). In an adult sample, Correa et al. (2010) found that social media use was negatively associated with emotional stability. Such emotional instability may have even greater negative implications on adolescents, and may cause a disruption in their academic performance as well.
Furthermore, some previous studies have assumed a standard use across all social media platforms, when youth do in fact engage with social media for different reasons. In light of the increased use of various other social media platforms among adolescents, and its potential to negatively impact their academic performance, it is important to not only investigate social media platforms other than Facebook (e.g., Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat), but also to identify factors that may alleviate its potentially negative effects. Boniel-Nissim et al. (2015) has identified positive parenting as one factor that may mitigate the negative effect of technology use on adolescents’ life satisfaction. As such, it is worthwhile to investigate the buffering effects of parent-adolescent communication on social media use and early adolescents’ academic achievement.
Increasingly, researchers are becoming more aware of the prevalence of social media use and its potential impact on development. Many would agree that its impact is pervasive, widespread, and more far-reaching than ever before. In this study, we investigated the association between commonly used social media platforms and academic achievement among a growing population of social media users, early adolescents. Additionally, we examined the moderating effects of parent-adolescent communication and adolescent gender on this association.
In contrast to previous findings, results suggested that the most widely used social media platforms were Instagram and Snapchat, not Facebook and Twitter, as is commonly identified in adult samples (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). This finding is notable, as it suggests a few important features regarding social media use currently. First, it points to the fact that social media use among early adolescents differs from that of adults. This finding is especially important for parents who may be attempting to navigate their children’s online presence. For example, some parents may join social media platforms as a way to connect and relate to their children, or perhaps as a way to monitor their children’s on-line presence. However, their efforts may be ineffective if their child is not active on the platform they assume them to be, such as Facebook. Secondly, this finding signals that perhaps the preferred social media use platform may be changing altogether for both younger and older individuals. Understandably, the invention of Facebook ushered in an innovative and exciting means of communicating and connecting with others. However, newer platforms may provide features that more accurately reflect the needs of the current population, especially early adolescents.
Regarding gender, results indicated more frequent use of social media among girls than boys; specifically, for the platforms Instagram and Snapchat. Along with corroborating previous research (Pujazon-Zazik & Park, 2010), this finding speaks to the societal and cultural norms that support greater disclosure for girls than for boys (Zahn-Waxler et al., 2000). An interesting note here is the type of platform for which significant gender differences were found, as it was only among Instagram and Snapchat users. These platforms are primarily used to post short-term experiences, and provide visual snapshots of daily life. Accordingly, girls are typically more engaged in behaviors such as taking, editing, and posting graphics on social media, than are boys (Dhir et al., 2016).
While Instagram and Snapchat use did not differ by race/ethnicity, it did so among Facebook and Twitter users. Use of both Facebook and Twitter were lowest among White adolescents, and highest in minority populations. Hispanic adolescents reported the most frequent use of Facebook, while those who self-identified as “other” reported the most frequent use of Twitter. Findings in the literature, relative to differences in race/ethnicity and social media use, are largely inconsistent. For example, while this study reported differences, others have found no differences in Twitter use among adolescents by race and ethnicity (e.g., Lenhart, 2009). Such discrepancies in findings may be linked to a number of measurement inconsistencies (e.g., differences in how researchers operationalize social media use, and largely homogeneous samples), and therefore warrants further investigation.
In line with theory and previous research suggesting the negative impact of social media use on early adolescents’ developmental outcomes (Ohannessian & Vannucci, 2020), hypotheses regarding its use and academic achievement were supported. Separate models independently assessing each of the four social media platforms revealed a negative association between use of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapshot and early adolescents’ academic achievement. There are several plausible explanations for these findings supported by previous literature. For example, it is possible that social media use of any platform presents a distraction (Skiera et al., 2015), especially among early adolescents who are not as capable of skillfully multitasking as well as their older peers. As such, attention that would otherwise be invested in their schoolwork is diverted to social media use, which ultimately affects their ability to perform well in school. Similarly, Lau (2017) found that college students who devoted more time to media also performed less favorably in their academics.
Another plausible explanation positions other factors as mediators of social media use and academic achievement. For example, Ohannessian and Vannucci (2020) found that social media use was adversely related to externalizing behaviors. As such, children and adolescents who engaged in externalizing problem behaviors often experienced lower academic achievement (Zimmermann et al., 2013). Therefore, lower academic achievement as a result of social media use may be a result of underlying issues stemming from other factors; in that, social media use poses a problem for other aspects of development, which further disrupts early adolescents’ performance in school.
In addition to direct effects, findings revealed significant interactions between Facebook and Instagram use and mother-adolescent communication. First, it was such that, low use of Facebook and Instagram, coupled with high mother-adolescent communication, resulted in higher academic achievement among early adolescents. Under these circumstances, mother-adolescent communication moderated the relationship between Facebook and Instagram use and early adolescents’ academic achievement in a way that benefits early adolescents’ academic performance. As previous research suggests, parenting strategies, similar to that of frequent involvement on the part of the parents in their children’s lives, serves as a protective factor against seemingly negative influences such as those involving the frequent use of social media (Livingstone & Helsper, 2008). It is likely that mothers are monitoring their children’s use and setting daily limits on time spent on Facebook and Instagram, which is then otherwise spent engaging in academic endeavors.
In contrast, low mother-adolescent communication and increased use of both Facebook and Instagram was associated with lower academic achievement among early adolescents. This finding suggests that academic achievement may be a function of the relationship adolescents experience with their mothers, as frequent use of both platforms, along with decreased mother-adolescent communication, was associated with lower academic achievement. In this instance, it is likely that frequent use is a catalyst for decreased communication between mothers and their adolescents. As children enter adolescence, they often attempt to establish autonomy from their paren
ts, and social media likely affords them a way in which to do so. Ultimately, this may cause distance between themselves and their mothers, despite mothers wanting to resist relinquishing such control. This may in turn lead to disruptions in the adolescents’ schooling, as adolescents may utilize social media as a way to detach from the parenting relationship.
Lastly, results also revealed significant interactions between Twitter and Snapchat use and gender and early adolescents’ academic achievement; such that when use across both Twitter and Snapchat were low, grades were highest, particularity for girls. Additionally, girls reported higher academic achievement across both platforms. Consistent with previous research, this finding provides additional support suggesting that, even under less than ideal circumstances, girls typically outperform boys academically (Wang & Parker, 2011).
Using a large, diverse community sample, the findings of the current study extend the extant literature on social media use and academic achievement in several important ways. Unlike most other studies, this study focused exclusively on an increasingly growing population of social media users, early adolescents. Moreover, four of the most popular social media platforms were examined. Additionally, the moderating effects of parent-adolescent communication and gender on social media use and academic achievement were examined. Nonetheless, findings should be contextualized within the parameters of the following limitations. First, data relied on adolescent self-reports, which researchers have found can contribute to shared method variance (Marsiglio et al., 2000). Therefore, future studies should consider including the perspectives of other sources that are integral to adolescent development, such as parents, teachers, and peers. Second, although this study utilized two time points of data collection, designs that include a longer range of time are encouraged, as such designs are able to show more detailed patterns of social media use over time. Lastly, although popular social media sites available at the time of this study were examined, it is important to keep in mind that social media sites are ever evolving.
The contributions of this study far outweigh its limitations however, as this study extends the current literature on social media use and contributes to the extant literature in several important ways. Of note, it represents an important first step towards understanding the links between social media use and academic achievement, specifically among early adolescents. The landscape of social media is ever-changing, and in spite of best efforts, it presents a challenge to keep pace with its effect. Additional research is needed in an effort to monitor its impact on the youth, and make adjustments accordingly. Such efforts could include parent’s setting parameters on their children’s social media use, allowing access to certain platforms relative to others, and monitoring the content they engage with. In accordance with the findings of this study, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat uses are negatively associated with academic achievement during early adolescents. However, results from interaction models suggested that, mother-adolescent communication lessened the negative effect of Facebook use and Instagram. Additional research is needed however, to further investigate the possible underlying mechanisms and other interactive effects related to social media use. Nonetheless, this research provides a more in-depth look into the world of social media use among early adolescents—a population that continues to simultaneously circumvent and expound upon the digital platforms that has come to define them.