Social media has long been suspected of being linked to mental health problems, mainly among teenagers. Social media use even shows a proven link to depression, especially among teenage girls. But a new study argues that the issue may be more complex than experts previously thought.
The research, published in the journal The Lancet Child – Adolescent Health, involved interviews with 10,000 children aged 13 to 16 in England. Researchers have found that social media can harm girls’ mental health by increasing their exposure to bullying, reducing sleep and physical exercise. Findings suggest that social media itself does no harm, but frequent use of it may disrupt activities that positively impact mental health like sleep and exercise, while increasing young people’s exposure. to harmful content, especially the negative experience of cyberbullying.
In other words: social media itself might not be to blame for mental health issues; rather, they take away from the quality of girls’ sleep and physical activity time while exposing users to cyberbullying, and this is what leads to lower well-being and mental health issues.
Bob Patton, a lecturer in clinical psychology at the University of Surrey, said this means strategies focused solely on reducing the use of social media as a tool to improve well-being or mental health might not not enough.
For boys, the impact on their mental health appears to be due to other reasons, so further research is needed.
The difference between boys and girls
The research was conducted by interviewing teenagers once a year from 2013 to 2015. They reported how often they checked or used social media like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter and Snapchat. More than three times a day was considered ‘very common’. The researchers noted that they did not capture the time participants spent on these websites, which is a limitation of the study.
The more girls are on social networks, the more their psychological distress increases
In 2014 and 2015, researchers asked questions about adolescents’ psychological distress and their personal well-being, such as life satisfaction, happiness, and anxiety.
The researchers found that, in both genders, very frequent social media use was associated with greater psychological distress. The effect was particularly clear among girls: the more often they were on social media, the greater their psychological distress.
But while nearly 60% of the impact on psychological distress in girls could be explained by poor sleep quality, greater exposure to cyberbullying and decreased physical activity, by contrast, for girls boys, these factors explain only 12% of the effects of very frequent use of social media on psychological distress. Other factors are yet to be discovered.