Exploring Young People’s Social Media Experiences

Exploring Young People’s Social Media Experiences

Project / Social Media

When the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing reached out to potentially collaborate on a project about young people’s social media use, we were intrigued. The team at Stanford is well-known for the innovative model of care they have developed for adolescent mental health, and the leadership is aware of how closely social media use is tied to the emotional lives of the population they serve.

At Hopelab, we care deeply about engaging directly with young people to learn about their experiences and to co-design solutions that meet them where they are.

Together, we collaborated to design an exploratory qualitative research project that focused on:

  • Understanding interactions and content that lead to both negative and positive experiences on social media platforms;
  • Capturing perspectives and specific examples of troubling social media content, identifying any themes or patterns that could inform future recommendations for social media best practices. As we worked on scoping the project, we also began to conceptualize this as an opportunity to explore new methodological approaches to talking to young people. We wondered: What if we talk to young people about social media, on social media? Could we use social media platforms to actually recruit participants and collect data?

Talking to Young People Where They Are

Over several weeks we talked to 25 young people using two online platforms: dscout and Facebook. Dscout is a mobile research platform that is designed to capture data in-context. The platform has thousands of “Scouts” that you can recruit into your study, based on demographics and the research topic of interest. Information is gathered from Scouts through “missions,” which are short episodic data collection events.

We designed a three-part dscout mission where 15 recruited Scouts shared their screen with us, and verbally described the content of what they saw on a given social media platform and how it made them feel. Over the course of 10 days, they submitted five different “social media snapshots” in addition to open-ended video responses to our prompts. We collected over 120 individual entries from the group of Scouts, rapidly analyzed the data, and used it to help us drive our next round of data collection, on Facebook.

We recruited 10 participants through Facebook ads and conducted the focus group in a private Facebook group where the conversation was visible only to the facilitators (Hopelab staff) and participants. While Facebook is often referenced as the platform GenZ-ers are only on to stay in touch with their Great Aunt Sally, the platform has also been successfully used by health researchers to conduct digital, asynchronous focus groups 1.

Over the course of four hours, focus group questions were posted by facilitators, and participants were asked to respond to each question as well as to other participants’ responses. Participants were able to answer all at once or pop in throughout the 4-hour period. The facilitators asked follow-up questions and tagged participants to expand on certain responses to facilitate discussion around emerging themes. To protect confidentiality, participants were removed from the group after the discussion concluded, and the data were pulled and analyzed for salient themes.

After analyzing the data, we saw six clear themes emerge:

  1. Parent and family involvement. Parents and family members are providing advice to young people about social media, and young people are listening.
  2. Managing negative experiences. Young people have specific strategies they use to manage negative social media experiences.
  3. Ubiquitous graphic content. Young people are encountering graphic content on most platforms and there is not a clear path for them to be equipped to manage this.
  4. Mood management. Young people are intentionally and unintentionally using social media to make them “feel good.”
  5. Positivity and creativity. Young people want positivity in their lives and to contribute to creating positivity; social media is an outlet for them to do so.
  6. Ads. Young people feel a lack of control and powerlessness in response to being targeted by ads, and hold apps responsible.

Sharing Learnings

For the dscout mission and Facebook focus group we created lightning summary reports for Stanford, which are short reports used to quickly and succinctly share the most salient takeaways from qualitative data sets 2. They provided a way for our partner to see what we were learning in real time.
At the end of the project, we shared a full report of the salient themes that emerged from the discussions with young people, as well as recommendations for topics that arose as relevant for further investigation and focus. The Stanford team will be using the findings from this initial qualitative project to guide the next phase of their work: co-designing possible strategies to tackle common social media challenges facing young people.

Get in Touch

Interested in learning more about what we learned and what the future direction of this work is? Contact Vicki Harrison at the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing.


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