Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Often Overlooked Positive Side of Social Media

What healthy tech use actually looks like.

Key points

  • Young Americans flourish digitally, feeling connected and benefiting from positive social comparison.
  • Social comparison online can inspire well-being, especially with similar peers and inspiring content.
  • Social media can strengthen teen friendships and support, enhanced by parental involvement and digital skills.
Source: DeanDrobot/Shutterstock

Yes, social media poses many challenges. They are designed to keep us hooked and release the neurotransmitter dopamine that makes us spend way more time on it then we intended to. And yes, specifically for young female adolescents, image-based platforms can significantly impact body image and self-esteem. But, social media can also lead to digital flourishing, inspiration, feelings of loving connection and social support.

Do these positive effects make up for all the negative ones? Probably not. But, thinking about the problems from a solution-oriented, positive framework can broaden the ways in which we can think about solving such issues. That is, in addition to pushing for phone-free schools and norms to push the age limit for social media use to 16 years, as proposed in Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Anxious Generation, we can think about what healthy and nourishing technology looks like that fosters well-being, resilience, and character strengths in young adults. We need to know what “healthy” tech use actually looks like to foster it.

My research is based on the framework of positive psychology, which explores ways in which we can live our best lives, rather than lives in the absence of illness. Over the past 10 years, I have explored ways in which media in general, as well as new media such as social media and computer-mediated communication, can lead to happiness and fulfillment for ourselves as well as prosociality and greater connectedness to others.

Here are three key insights from positive media psychology:

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash
Young female on phone with computer
Source: Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

1. Young Americans do digitally flourish. With a sample representative of the American population, my recent research revealed that younger individuals (18-34) perceive themselves to flourish digitally more than older individuals, even when controlling for the amount of time spent communicating online in general. Young adults specifically indicated feeling more connected when communicating digitally and engaged in positive social comparison more so than older adults. The latter finding specifically speaks against a lot of earlier research, and press releases for that matter, that showcase the detriments of online social comparison for well-being. But, if we look closely, more recent evidence accumulates that indicates positive well-being effects from social comparison processes online.

2. Social comparison online can lead to inspiration and positive well-being effects. A recent review on the role of social comparison on social media from one of my colleagues from the University of Nuremberg shows that social comparison can lead to well-being for specific people under specific conditions. For example, one of my own studies showed that when college students share inspiring content on Facebook with others, over time, they feel more love and compassion toward others. In another study, we found that inspiring social media and online video use, but not overall time spent on social media, was positively related to everyday experiences of gratitude, awe, vitality and prosocial motivations and behaviors. Similarly, research from Sheffield Institute in the U.K. further shows that social comparison on Instagram is more likely to lead to inspiration when adolescents compare themselves to similar others instead of unachievable influencers. Thus, one of the conditions for whether social comparison may lead to positive or negative effects also stems from the content we consume and the people we follow. So, let’s keep in mind: social comparison is not always bad and young adults do experience inspiration online that is oftentimes overlooked.

Source: Marie/Pixabay
Phone with hands and coffee.
Source: Marie/Pixabay

3. Social media strengthens teens' friendships more so than it harms them. We are living in a digitized world. And while us old millennials picked up the home phone to talk to our friends for hours in our room, today teens do this on their mobile device. In a Pew Research study from 2022 that surveyed U.S. teens 13-17 years of age, 80% of teens say that social media makes them more connected to what’s going on in their friend’s life, 71% say they have a place where they can show their creative side, and 67% say they like that they have people on social media who can support them through tough times. Moreover, a teenager's mindset matters. The Pew study also revealed that those who believe social media has a general positive effect on their peers also experience more positive personal experiences than those that believe social media has an overall negative effect on their peers. Such a positive outlook on technology can be influenced by a multitude of factors, but specifically for young teenagers, parents play an active role in their kids' digital lives. In fact, parental involvement can be the deciding factor whether a teen digitally flourishes or not. In a study I co-authored that was just published last month, in April 2024, in the Journal of Child Development, we tracked adolescents’ (11-21 years of age, average age 15) digital flourishing for a year and found that for half of the sample their digital flourishing score was high to begin with and remained mostly stable over time (with slight increases in positive social comparison). For the other half of the sample, digital flourishing was lower to begin with and specifically self-control decreased over time. What differentiated the two groups was that the first, highly flourishing group, had parents with high digital skills and a keen investment into their teenager’s tech live.

Don’t get me wrong. I am no denier of the problems that social media brings and I'm all for new COPPA2.0 regulations and other initiatives put forth by admirable institutions such as The Center for Humane Technology and the Digital Wellness Institute. But when we approach these problems from a positive psychology perspective, we might discover resources and strength in the consumer and tech platforms themselves that we can leverage to avoid or lessen the harm and promote thriving.

More from Sophie H. Janicke-Bowles, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today