John Jerrim

There have been lots of concerns raised recently about social media use among young people. This includes links found between time spent on social media and declines in mental health. Similarly, some are now likening constant internet use to an addiction, with teenagers suffering withdrawal symptoms if their smartphone is taken away.

But how frequently do young people in England access social media? Are they any more or less ‘addicted’ to the internet than young people in other countries? And does this supposed addiction to the internet really do their mental health any harm?

Evidence from the latest PISA data available may well hold some clues.

Social media use and internet addiction as measured by PISA

In PISA 2015, 15-year-olds from more than 40 countries including England completed a questionnaire about their use of technology.

This included a question on the frequency with which they used social networks on a five-point scale (from almost never through to every day). They were also asked the following question about whether they suffered withdrawal-like symptoms if they were not able to connect to the internet:

‘I really feel bad if no internet connection is possible’. (Strongly disagree to strongly agree).

The chart below compares responses to these two questions from teenagers in England to those of teenagers in other countries.

England is in the top-right quadrant – illustrating that it is above the OECD average on both measures. That is, young people in England are more likely to use social media every day and more likely to express withdrawal symptoms if internet access is taken away than young people in most other countries across the world.

The important question

But does this matter?

The table below illustrates a correlation between daily social media use and internet ‘addiction’.

Social media use and internet withdrawal symptoms of teenagers in England
Social media use
Not every dayEvery day
Experiencing symptoms of internet withdrawal53%71%

In total, 71% of daily social media users in England experienced internet withdrawal symptoms. This compares to 53% of teenagers who use social media less frequently. A similar difference held after differences in the gender, socio-economic status, academic achievement and school attended of social media users were taken into account.

Teenagers who experience the strongest withdrawal symptoms also reported the lowest life satisfaction scores on a scale of 0 to 10, as the next table shows.

Internet withdrawal symptoms and the life satisfaction of teenagers in England
I really feel bad if no internet connection is possible
Life satisfaction scoreDisagree AgreeStrongly agree
4 and below13%13%22%
57%9%10%
611%10%10%
717%18%17%
822%23%17%
919%16%12%
1012%12%12%
Average score7.317.236.8

In particular, the average life satisfaction score for teenagers who strongly agreed that they felt bad when no internet was available was 6.8 out of 10. This is half a point lower than for teenagers who did not report suffering internet withdrawal symptoms, who had an average life satisfaction score of 7.31 out of 10.

In other words, daily social media use among teenagers in England is linked to symptoms of internet withdrawal. This, in turn, is then associated with lower levels of life-satisfaction. Of course, these relationships are correlational rather than causal. They nevertheless highlight how important it is that we develop a better understanding of the impact that social media has upon teenagers’ lives.

About the author(s)

John Jerrim

John Jerrim is Professor of Education and Social Statistics in the Institute of Education, University College London. His research interests include the economics of education, access to higher education, intergenerational mobility, cross-national comparisons and educational inequalities. He has worked extensively with the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data, with this research reported widely in the British media.