Adolescent Social Media User Types and Their Mental Health, Well-being, and Social Connectedness

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Adolescence is a period of vulnerability to mental ill-health. With social media use ubiquitous in early adolescence, more evidence is required as to its relationship with adolescent mental health and well-being. Public health policy and research have focused on the effects of time spent online. However, social media use encompasses a wide range of activities, and little is currently known about how adolescents use social media and the mental health implications.

This mixed methods PhD involves a two-wave cohort survey of 13-14-year-olds (N=2,549 at time 1) in nineteen UK secondary schools, and qualitative interviews with twenty-four 13-14-year-olds. I first develop quantitative – using Latent Class Analysis – and qualitative – using Ideal-Type Analysis – typologies of social media users based on non-platform-specific passive, messaging, and broadcasting activities. User types identified are high communicators, moderate communicators, broadcasters, and minimal users.

Second, I test associations between user types and subsequent mental health, with poorer outcomes (including self-harm, anxiety, depression, and poor well-being) at age 14 observed in those classed as broadcasters at age 13. I triangulate these analyses against reflexive thematic analysis of qualitative data to explore potential mechanisms underpinning the quantitative associations (social media affordances, self-presentation concerns and exposure to harm), reflecting on unique features of different types of social media use that have transformed experiences of adolescence.

Third, social connectedness is examined in depth as a key mechanism. Associations between user type and poor connectedness to peers, family and school are tested quantitatively, with little evidence that connectedness at age 14 varies according to user type at age 13. Triangulation with qualitative themes (connectedness-promoting activities, social obligations, (mis)trust and personal and group identity) reveals a complex, non-linear relationship between social media use and social connectedness, with evidence of both displacement and stimulation effects. Implications for digital literacy curricula, and guidance for parents, clinicians and social media companies are discussed.
Date of Award21 Jun 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SponsorsNIHR - SPHR
SupervisorJudi L Kidger (Supervisor), Becky Mars (Supervisor) & Claire M A Haworth (Supervisor)



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