The incredible growth of social media over the last decade has fueled many debates on whether it’s actually good or bad. Now, a new study sheds light on the effects of social media on the health and wellbeing in young people.
A team of researchers at the Imperial College London and the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health at University College London found that frequent social media use indirectly damages the mental health of teens, especially young girls, through cyberbullying, lack of sleep, and reduced physical activity.
The study, which was published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, reveals that social media use is unlikely to cause direct harm to adolescent girls, but if the prolonged use displaces sleep and exercise, or contains cyberbullying, it can negatively impact their mental health.
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Increased social media use linked to mental health issues
Toarrive at their findings, the team of researchers interviewed nearly 10,000 children between 13 and 16 years old in England. The study looked at the health, lifestyle, wellbeing, and technology use of the teens over a three-year period.
They analyzed data from the Out Futures study, which followed the teenagers starting in 2013 through 2017. The participants answered questions about social media use frequency, in-person social interaction, and health profiles. In the following years, the same teenagers gave updated information about social-media use and responded to questions regarding physical activity, mental health, sleep habits, and cyberbullying.
During this period, the number of social media users among the participants increased from 43 percent to 69 percent in boys and 51 percent to 75 percent in girls. The common social media platforms accessed by the teens were Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat, among others.
But, the researchers found that social media may harm teens’ mental health, especially among girls, by increasing their exposure to bullying and reduces sleep quality and physical exercise.
Difference between boys and girls
When girls suffered poor mental health associated with heavy social media use, it is caused by a combination of many factors. Put simply; teen girls experience mental health issues as a result of social media use because they’re exposed to cyberbullying and excessive use leads to lack of sleep and time to exercise.
Boys weren’t affected by those factors, which means that other mechanisms may be involved in developing mental health problems, but it’s still unclear what these factors are.
“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," Russell Viner of the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health and co-author, said in a statement.
Parents’ role in controlling excessive social media use
Moreover, the study sheds light on other possible causes of mental health issues among adolescents, not just social media itself. Many people obsess about social media, but they do not emphasize the negative effects of lack of sleep, which could be a more important factor in determining mental health.
The researchers reiterate that parents should help reduce the risk of mental health issues by keeping their gadgets and phones out of children’s bedrooms, allowing them to have up to 10 hours of sleep at night.
Also, parents should ask their children about bullying and if they’re being bullied, which could also fuel feelings of depression and anxiety. Other recommendations include letting teens stay active and encouraging them to turn off their phones at night. More importantly, the parents should talk to their kids about cyberbullying, since it’s one of the major sources of harm among teen girls.
“The key messages to young people are: Get enough sleep; don’t lose contact with your friends in real life; and physical activity is important for mental health and well-being,” Dasha Nicholls, co-author, said.
“If you look after yourself in those ways, you don’t have to worry about the impact of social media,” Nicholls added.
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, Viner, Russell M et al. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(19)30186-5/fulltext