Adolescents’ mental health may not be affected adversely by excessive use of social media itself but by the impact it has on sleep, reduced physical activity and exposure to cyberbullying, suggest a study* published today in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.
This conclusion came from what was described as the first observational study to track social media use and mental health over important early adolescent years with enough participants to make it representative of the whole of England.
In the UK, more than 90% of teenagers use the internet for social networking and there is growing concern about their use of social media and the impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
There is some evidence that social media use can positively influence health, for example by reducing social isolation. However, few long-term studies exist and few have examined the mechanisms that might impact on wellbeing.
For the current study, scientists analysed data from three sets of interviews with 12,866 teenagers from nearly 1,000 schools across England, as they progressed from Year 9 in 2013 (13 to 14-year-olds) to Year 11 in 2015 (15 to 16-year-olds).
At all three time points, young people reported the frequency with which they accessed or checked social media.
Very frequent social media use was defined in the study as using social networks, instant messaging or photo-sharing services such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp multiple (three or more) times daily.
The authors note that a limitation of the survey data is that it did not capture how much time the teenagers spent using social media, only how often they checked or accessed it.
Results showed that in 2013, of 13,000 children interviewed, 43% of boys and 51% of girls used social media multiple times a day. By 2014, this increased to 51% and 68% respectively. In 2015, 69% of boys and 75% of girls used social media multiple times a day.
In both sexes, very frequent social media use was associated with greater psychological distress.
In girls, the more often they accessed or checked social media, the greater their psychological distress. In 2014, 28% of girls who very frequently used social media reported psychological distress on the general health questionnaire, compared with 20% of those using it weekly or less. However, this effect was not as clear in boys.
The 2015 survey revealed that persistent very frequent social media use across 2013 and 2014 predicted later lower wellbeing in girls, with girls who regularly used social media very frequently reporting lower life satisfaction and happiness and greater anxiety in 2015.
The authors found that almost all of the effect on girls’ wellbeing in 2015 was down to cyber-bullying, reduced sleep and reduced physical activity.
They also found that nearly 60% of the impact on psychological distress in girls in 2014 could be accounted for by their sleep being disrupted and by greater exposure to cyber-bullying. Reduced physical activity also played a lesser role.
In contrast, cyberbullying, sleep and physical activity appeared to explain only 12% of the impact of very frequent social media use on psychological distress in boys.
Professor Russell Viner from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, who led the research, said: “Our results suggest that social media itself doesn’t cause harm, but that frequent use may disrupt activities that have a positive impact on mental health such as sleeping and exercising, while increasing exposure of young people to harmful content, particularly the negative experience of cyber-bullying.”
Therefore, the authors suggested that direct effects, such as on brain development, are unlikely and so interventions to simply reduce social media use might be misplaced.
Co-author, Dr Dasha Nicholls from Imperial College London, UK, said: “The clear sex differences we discovered could simply be attributed to girls accessing social media more frequently than boys, or to the fact that girls had higher levels of anxiety to begin with.”
*Viner R M, Aswathikutty-Gireesh A, Stiglic N, et al. Roles of cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity in mediating the effects of social media use on mental health and wellbeing among young people in England: a secondary analysis of longitudinal data. DOI:10.1016/S2352-4642(19)30186-5.