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Editorial IBSA20 Mar 20245 min read

How to be happy in the age of social media

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all? This question, reminiscent of a famous fairy tale, could very well reflect the present-day reality. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok act as modern digital mirrors, enabling anyone and everyone to explore and share their appearance, their life and their inner self with the whole world. However, as the fairy tale of Snow White teaches us, the pursuit of approval, beauty and happiness often conceals a dark side that needs to be explored.

If you’re happy, do you know it? 

Differentiating between happiness and joy is key when it comes to unravelling the complex emotional tapestry of adolescents in their turbulent world. While joy can be fleeting and linked to specific events, happiness is a more profound, enduring state that is deeply rooted in an individual's overall wellbeing. It is worth bearing this difference in mind when we look at how adolescents perceive and seek happiness. Young people find satisfaction in a wide range of areas, from academic success and their passion for sport to intense interpersonal relationships and fun with friends. This variety of sources of happiness reflects the complex nature of adolescent experiences, where the quest for belonging, success and pleasure is paramount.

In this context, it is crucial to emphasise that happiness — unlike joy — is by no means just a transitory emotional reaction, but a deeply ingrained condition with major implications for both mental and physical health. In fact, studies show that happier individuals tend to have better cardiovascular health and are less prone to metabolic diseases. So, investing in the emotional wellbeing of adolescents not only contributes to their personal development, but can also bring lasting benefits to their long-term health.

The impact of social media on young people’s self-esteem

The widespread use of social media, in Switzerland1 as elsewhere, is one of the causes of the rise in mental health problems, especially among young people. Problems such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and poor body image have emerged as a direct consequence of this trend, which is driven by a series of psychological and social factors, including the cultural messages and role models that are constantly portrayed in the media.

These days, around 4 in 5 adolescents use social media every day, with 1 in 10 at risk of developing ‘problematic social media use’. This is what has emerged from the “report on digital technologies, the use and potential problems of tools within the adolescent population” 2, published by the Italian National Institute of Health (ISS) as part of the international multicentre Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study 3. The latter is carried out in partnership with the Regional Office for Europe of the World Health Organization (WHO) and aims to examine young people’s health and their school and social environment in depth ​​

Come essere felici: social media vs autostimaHow to be happy: social media vs. self-esteem

Instagram and co. can negatively impact young people’s self-esteem in a number of ways, diminishing their sense of happiness. One such way is through the constant seeking of approval online, which can lead to an addiction to likes4 and comments in order to feel accepted or ‘part of’ something in general. This perpetual need for ‘external approval’ can actually undermine real happiness, as personal satisfaction becomes constantly dependent on other people’s opinions and judgement.

However, it is worth remembering that happiness isn’t a solitary experience, but a phenomenon that is, by its very nature, interpersonal, which develops within human relationships. This is reflected in the concept of community, where happiness and mutual appreciation flourish. 

As Zygmunt Bauman claimed, happiness starts at home, where we interact authentically with the people around us. In an age ruled by social media and virtual connection, it is vital to remember that true happiness springs from real, deep human bonds, and not from ‘likes’ or ‘reactions’. The essence of happiness therefore lies in connections with others and in the mutual support that we offer one another.

Building a healthy digital culture: the role of parents and the society in tackling the problem

Pursuing happiness these days is also about building a healthy digital culture, which calls for a combined effort from parents, society and the young people themselves. It is paramount to educate young people about how to navigate social media safely and with awareness, by equipping them with the tools they need to safeguard and protect their own self-esteem. A key role in this educational process is played by relatives and parents, who are considered the ‘custodians’ of education within the home.

However, a study conducted by the Italian consumer organisation Altroconsumo 5 found that many young people hide their online life from their parents, pointing to a lack of communication and understanding between generations. Of the teenagers surveyed, 39% admitted to hiding some of their online activity from their parents, while only a small percentage of parents were aware of the emotional problems related to their children’s online activities. This gap in perception highlights the importance of fostering open dialogue and raising awareness among parents of the impact of social media on their children.

Whereas the digital world might encourage young people to take on false identities or different personas, the home should be the primary place where real bonds are forged and young people’s health and wellbeing potential is maximised. In this context, promoting a healthy digital culture requires a collaborative effort from parents and children, one that encourages open communication, awareness and mutual support, to create a safer, more positive online and offline environment for everyone.



The picture that has been painted goes to show just how much more work we need to do to ensure a positive online environment. But to deal with these problems effectively, we must look not only inside the home, but also outside it, involving educators and public authorities.

IBSA Foundation has launched a number of initiatives in this regard, including the Happiness2.0 project, which was discussed in a recent interview with the two coordinators: Laura Marciano, a research associate in the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Silvia Misiti, director of IBSA Foundation. The interview was an opportunity to hear the voices of those behind this project, which gives Ticino-based adolescents aged 14 to 18 years, parents and stakeholders the chance to discuss how using social media affects adolescents’ wellbeing over time. The project takes the indicators of positive wellbeing (e.g. happiness) into account, as well as development processes such as personality formation and the need for social connections


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[1] Addiction Switzerland
[2] Digital technologies, the use and potential problems of tools within the adolescent population
[3] Health Behaviour in School-aged Children
[4] Adolescents are menaced by an addiction to likes
[5] Adolescents and social media: 39% of teenagers hide their online life from their parents


Editorial IBSA

The IBSA Foundation for scientific research promotes authoritative and accessible science education for health protection and supports young students and researchers through Fellowships and many other dedicated events.