Key Research

Social media and adolescent well-being in the Global South

Key Points:

  • The majority of the world’s adolescents live in the Global South.
  • Research is lacking on the benefits and the harms of adolescent social media use in the Global South.
  • Social media interacts with well-being in complex ways across five world regions in the Global South that were reviewed
  • Inclusive research is needed to build a localized and contextual understanding of social media use and adolescent well-being


LiveMore ScreenLess’s Summary

A review of research articles on youth and social media showed that out of a reviewed 79 articles, only eight were from the Global South.  This is a substantial oversight as 88% of the world’s population, and the majority of adolescents, live in the Global South.

Culture differences must be addressed and taken into consideration when comparing groups of adolescents. So as to avoid lumping all of the Global South together, the authors distinguished unique characteristics by region.

Sub-Saharan Africa

This area is the least digitally connected. Research is also difficult as there is a stigma about mental health. 

Middle East and North Africa

This region is one of the most diverse in terms of digital access, yet the evidence on how SMU impacts adolescent well-being is limited. Most available evidence examines youth’s internet use in general or focuses on risks such as cyberbullying, online sexual content, risky behavior, or excessive internet use. The link between SMU was more implicit than explicitly measured in this area. While the ability to stay in touch with friends is seen as a positive, because of parental disapproval more young men than young women have social media accounts.

South and Southeast Asia

With more than half of the world’s adolescents living in Asia  and the highest rates of child internet use occurring in this region, it is an important one to keep in mind. While there is evidence of persistent gender inequalities, a 2018 policy report found that social media provides a ‘digital safe haven’ for adolescents in countries like Afghanistan where girls can use such online spaces to engage with topics such as women’s rights, sexuality, domestic violence and abortion. Research has also highlighted various risks: suicides relating to social media posts in Bangladesh, cyber-bulling in Pakistan, SMU leading to poor mental health in India, and recruitment of adolescent girls into prostitution in Nepal. A qualitative study in East Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand) found that SMU has both positive (e.g., enabling communication) and negative (e.g., promoting self-harm) impacts on mental health. 


While popular Western social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are banned in China, the country represents one of the biggest social media markets in the world with a high proportion of young people using WeChat, QZone and Sina Weibo. The prevalence of problematic SMU and its impact on adolescent well-being have been widely researched in empirical studies, review articles, qualitative and longitudinal investigations. For example, studies explore the negative impact of excessive WeChat  or Qzone use leading to depression via negative social comparisons, suggesting an overall trend towards examining the negative impact of SMU, as in the Global North. Despite the limited work on the positive effects of SMU, studies have found that it can boost well-being, particularly among LGBT populations.

Latin America

Most young people in Latin America are internet users, using social media like WhatsApp to talk with and meet friends. Research in Latin America has largely focused on general device access and digital skills in adolescents rather than SMU. In countries such as Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica and Uruguay between 13% and 44% of participants report contact with strangers online; 30% have been exposed to content that upset them; between 5% and 10% have experienced cyberbullying; and one-fourth of adolescents have received sexual content. Research elsewhere in Latin America has focused mostly on associations of SMU with psychopathology (Colombia), sleep (México) or compulsive use (Colombia and México). In Mexico, indigenous Maya adolescents believe that digital technologies alter social networks in ways that can both contribute to (e.g., increasing family closeness and security) and detract from (e.g., turning attention away from the family) family relations.

Future Research

Three avenues are suggested for future research. First, research needs to account for the multifaceted nature of digital inequalities and examine whether these amplify the harms and benefits of SMU in the Global South. Second, researchers must be careful about appropriating theories or research insights from Global North contexts without considering the geopolitical, socio-economic and cultural dimensions of Global South. Third, researchers need to move beyond overly generalized Global North vs Global South differences and instead investigate the various micro-level individual variables (e.g., parenting and family dynamics), and macro-level ecological variables (e.g., cultural values) that might change how social media influences adolescent well-being.

Sakshi Ghai, Lucía Magis-Weinberg, Mariya Stoilova, Sonia Livingstone, Amy Orben, Social media and adolescent well-being in the Global South, Current Opinion in Psychology, Volume 46, 2022.

Topics: Social Media

Year: 2022