Social media use in adolescence: Longitudinal relationships with social functioning and psychopathology

Aidan P. Schmitt


Social media use and psychopathology are both prevalent during adolescence; however, the relationship between these two variables is not yet fully understood. Research on these topics is generally myopic in that it focuses on a brief window of time (e.g., cross-sectional studies), a small number of variables (e.g., hours spent per day; depressive symptoms), and uses single reporters and measures (e.g., adolescent report using a questionnaire). Extant literature shows moderate relationships between frequency of social media use and depressive symptoms; however, most studies do not use statistical methods that investigate bidirectionality or parse apart between-person and within-person effects, so effects may be overestimated and misunderstood. Additionally, research on other areas of functioning such as relationships, that may impact (or be impacted by) social media use is still in its infancy. Given these limitations, the current study investigated within-person relationships between two features of social media use (frequency and addictive use), two types of social functioning (prosocial behavior and family conflict), and two types of psychopathology (internalizing and externalizing symptoms) in a nationally representative American sample (Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study). Random intercept cross-lagged panel models were used to provide clarity on directionality and within-person development. Results showed that social media variables were generally unidirectionally related to other variables. Specifically, higher social media frequency predicted more family conflict and symptoms of psychopathology. An exception to this was prosocial behavior, which predicted more frequent social media use. Social media addiction was generally related to worse outcomes, including less prosocial behavior. This study clarified longitudinal links between these variables at a within-person level and further elucidated differences between high frequency social media use and potentially addictive use.