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Young people’s digital skills do not improve through increased use of social media

March 31, 2023

Study by the National Education Panel shows: Use of social media does not lead to the development of digital skills among young people.

Social media such as Instagram or WhatsApp are the communication tools of choice for young people. A new evaluation using data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) on digital media competencies (ICT competencies) of 15- to 18-year-olds has now revealed some surprising findings: Social activities such as chatting or sharing pictures and videos do not have a positive effect on competencies in using digital communication and information technologies. On the contrary, excessive use of social-interactive services can even lead to lower overall digital skills among young people. There is good news, however, regarding differences between girls and boys.

Whether it's doing homework or learning vocabulary, quickly replying to a chat message, sharing a video or uploading a selfie - young people often use social media for entertainment, distraction and amusement. Which is precisely the pattern of behavior that can negatively impact their ability to use digital communication media in a targeted and expert manner - for example, to conduct research and evaluate search results. According to the authors of the report, Dr. Timo Gnambs from the Leibniz Institute for Educational Progress and Dr. Martin Senkbeil from the IPN Kiel, the contrast between social-interactive and instrumental motives use is a key factor in this context. While the use of digital media for entertainment and social communication is not very demanding, targeted search for information in an online search, for example, has a direct impact on young adults' ability to use digital information technologies confidently. Educational researchers call these ICT skills. These are now considered key skills, along with writing, reading and arithmetic.

Use on the side does harm

But it's not just the less demanding activities that are bad for improving ICT skills. Dr. Martin Senkbeil sees the habit of use on the side as problematic: "Young people often use online social media alongside their schoolwork. However, this multitasking impairs understanding and learning processes, and as a result we see lower ICT competencies overall," says the researcher from the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN). Along with co-author Gnambs, Senkbeil therefore calls for teaching sophisticated information-related skills as a standard component of subject-based instruction. Students should learn, for example, how to search for specific information with an online search, assess it, process it, and present it, thus training their skills in complex thinking and problem solving.

Girls and boys equally competent

Gnambs and Senkbeil also took a look at the differences between girls and boys in their study of the representative sample of 15- to 18-year-old teenagers in Germany (more than 14,000 participating in the National Educational Panel). Their findings: Contrary to widespread belief, the genders hardly differ in their ICT skills. However, male adolescents systematically rate their own skills higher. The researchers therefore suspect that women tend to avoid technology-based occupational fields and training because they are less confident about their skills. As differences in self-assessment are already strongly entrenched in adolescence, Dr. Timo Gnambs advises early support measures as early as childhood: "Early support can contribute to more equal opportunities in later years of life and reduce the development of actual differences in ICT competencies."

All results of the evaluation can be found in the full report "How do ICT competencies develop in adolescence?" in the NEPS Forschung kompakt series. This is available for download at and is permanently available at


The report is based on the following publications:

    Gnambs, T. (2021). The development of gender differences in information and communication technology (ICT) literacy in middle adolescence. Computers in Human Behavior, 114:106533.

    Senkbeil, M. (2022). ICT-related variables as predictors of ICT literacy beyond intelligence and prior achievement. Education and Information Technologies, 27, 3595-3622.


About the NEPS and the Transfer Report Series

The National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) consists of seven large sub-studies, the so-called start cohorts. These comprise a total of more than 70,000 tested and interviewed individuals from birth through the education and employment phase and into the post-education phase, as well as 50,000 additional respondents from their environment, such as parents and educational professionals. The samples of the start cohorts were drawn as representative for the whole of Germany. The data collected is anonymized and made available to education researchers worldwide. Experts from 13 renowned research institutes work together in the Germany-wide NEPS network. LIfBi in Bamberg is in charge of the project. The IPN is involved in NEPS.

The transfer series NEPS Forschung kompakt - Aktuelle Auswertungen aus dem Nationalen Bildungspanel is published several times a year with central research results from NEPS. The series is published by the NEPS Network Committee, which is responsible for it.



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