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Preteen boy staring at cell phone with laptop open next to him.

How does social media use affect early adolescents’ academic achievement?

In a new article published in Youth and Society, University of Delaware Associate Professor Mellissa Gordon and co-author Christine McCauley Ohannessian of Florida State University analyzed survey data from 1,459 middle schoolers in the Northeast United States and found that academic achievement decreased as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter use increased. In addition, Gordon and Ohannessian studied two factors that moderated the relationship between social media use and academic achievement: the quality of parent-adolescent communication and gender. They found that less frequent use of Facebook and Instagram, coupled with high quality mother-adolescent communication, was associated with higher academic achievement. In contrast, low-quality mother-adolescent communication and increased use of Facebook and Instagram was associated with lower academic achievement. In relation to gender, the authors found that as Snapchat and Twitter use increased, academic achievement decreased for both girls and boys. However, girls consistently maintained higher grades than boys with similar social media use. Unlike most other studies, Gordon and Ohannessian’s study focused exclusively on early adolescents aged 11 to 15 years—a growing population of social media users—and assessed four social media platforms, not only Facebook and Twitter. Because most research focuses on older adolescents or young adults, this study offers an important first step in understanding the links between social media use and academic achievement among early adolescents.

In studying the links between social media use and academic achievement, Gordon and Ohannessian analyzed participants’ self-reported data from surveys administered in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017. In the fall of 2016, seventh and eighth-grade students enrolled full-time at five public middle schools located in Connecticut and central Massachusetts (N = 1589) were invited to participate in a longitudinal study investigating risk and protective factors for internalizing symptoms (see pandaresearchproject.org). The participants ranged in age from 11 to 15 years, and approximately 49% identified as boys and 51% identified as girls. Fifty-two percent identified as white, 21% identified as Hispanic/Latino, 9% identified as Black, 15% identified as multi-racial/ethnic, less than 3% identified as Asian and less than 1% identified as Pacific Islander or Native American.

Gordon and Ohannessian measured academic achievement through school grades, asking participants to identify the grades they mostly received (i.e., “mostly As,” “mostly Bs,” etc). They measured social media use through frequency of use, asking participants to note how often they used each of the four social media platforms (i.e., “never,” “often,” “almost constantly,” etc). To assess adolescent communication, Gordon and Ohannessian asked participants whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of 20 statements, such as “My mother is always a good listener.” To assess gender, participants self-identified as male or female. The authors then coded the responses they received and analyzed their data using the statistical software package, STATA 17.

Gordon and Ohanessian’s analyses revealed negative associations between the use of Facebook (b = -0.19, p < .01), Twitter (b = -0.09, p < .01), Instagram (b = -0.03, p < .01), and Snapchat (b = -0.03, p < .01) and early adolescents’ academic achievement, even after controlling for age, gender and race/ethnicity. As use of these platforms increased, participants’ grades decreased. For example, for every 1% increase in Facebook use, there was an associated 0.19% decrease in early adolescents’ academic achievement, measured by self-reported grades. This finding aligns with other social media research focused on older users, but adds to the field by focusing on early adolescence, including platforms other than Facebook and testing each platform independently.

Gordon and Ohannessian offered several possible explanations for this finding. For example, they posit that grades may decrease because social media presents a distraction to early adolescents, who are not yet skilled in multitasking. 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. Additionally, lower academic achievement may be a result of other underlying issues that are affected by social media use. For example, social media use can pose a problem for other aspects of development by disrupting healthy family functioning or peer relationships. These disruptions may further lower early adolescents’ performance in school.

In relation to the moderating effects, Gordon and Ohannessian found that less frequent use of Facebook and Instagram, coupled with high-quality mother-adolescent communication, was associated with higher academic achievement among early adolescents. (This study did not reveal significant moderating effects in this area for the other two platforms, Snapchat or Twitter.) The authors posit that mothers who were maintaining positive, frequent communication with their children may also be monitoring their adolescents’ use of Facebook and Instagram, perhaps by setting daily limits. 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. 

Conversely, low-quality mother-adolescent communication and frequent use of Facebook and Instagram was associated with low academic achievement. Gordon and Ohannessian suggest that frequent social media use may allow an adolescent to establish more autonomy from their parents, which is a developmentally appropriate behavior for this age group. However, in doing so, communication with their mothers and the monitoring of social media may decrease and, in turn, contribute to decreased academic achievement. 

Figure 1. As the use of Facebook and Instagram increased among adolescents, their academic performance decreased.
Figure 1. As the use of Facebook and Instagram increased among adolescents, their academic performance decreased.

Gordon and Ohannessian also found that gender moderated the relationship between social media use and academic achievement, particularly for users of Snapchat and Twitter. (This study did not find significant moderating effects for the other two platforms, Facebook and Instagram.) Interestingly, when Snapchat and Twitter use were less frequent, academic achievement was highest, especially for girls. Gordon and Ohannessian note that this finding is consistent with other research that shows that girls typically outperform boys in academics, even when circumstances are not ideal. 

“The landscape of social media is ever changing, and in spite of best efforts, it presents a challenge to keep pace with its effect,” Gordon said. “Unfortunately, its impact on our most vulnerable population—children and adolescents—is not fully understood. It is important therefore, that research is in step with social media’s frequency of use in an effort to monitor its impact on the youth, and to make adjustments accordingly. Such efforts could include parents setting parameters on their children’s social media use, allowing access to certain platforms relative to others and monitoring the content their children engage with.” 

It is also important to keep in mind the complexities of correlational research when interpreting findings. For example, research suggests a number of other factors may also contribute to frequent social media use such as school connectedness and the reason for use, which, in turn, may also influence academic achievement.


About Mellissa S. Gordon

Mellissa S. Gordon is an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s (CEHD) Department of Human Development and Family Sciences. Her research examines the ways that at-risk families and their communities impact adolescent and young adult developmental outcomes. Gordon’s approach to research is informed by ecological theory, critical race theory and positive youth development. To address her research questions, Gordon primarily uses large-scale secondary data sets and employs various statistical techniques, including multilevel modeling, structural equation modeling, and growth curve modeling.


Equity and Diversity Faculty in CEHD

Gordon’s research complements the work of faculty studying equity and diversity within families and communities, including Ann Aviles (mental health and homelessness among youth), Tia Barnes (socioemotional well-being among underrepresented youth), Roderick L. Carey (Black boy mattering), Zoubeida Dagher (scientific inquiry and social media), Eric Layland (LGBTQ communities), Rosalie Rolon-Dow (Black and Latinx educational experiences) and Bahira Sherif Trask (globalization and family change), among others.