“Facebook and Instagram are damaging children’s mental health,” reports the Sun as a new study suggests there’s a link between frequent social media use and poor mental health and wellbeing in teens.
Researchers analysed data from 12,866 young people aged 13 to 16 in England.
The researchers used the information, collected in three waves from 2013 to 2015, to assess the link between social media use and health.
But the social media channels themselves may not be to blame.
Researchers found that, particularly among girls, much of the association between frequent use of social media and poor mental health or wellbeing could be explained by cyberbullying, lack of sleep and reduced physical activity.
They suggested that limiting access to social media might not be the best way to improve teenagers’ wellbeing.
Instead, it might be more effective to decrease cyberbullying or increase resilience to it, and make sure teenagers get enough sleep and physical activity.
The researchers who carried out the study were from the University College London Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health and Hammersmith Hospital.
No funding was reported for the research.
It was published in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet: Child & Adolescent Health.
While most of the reports in the United Kingdom (UK) media include the information about cyberbullying and lack of sleep, several sources suggest that use of social media makes these things inevitable.
For example, the Sun said: “Social media use exposes teenagers to cyberbullying, harms sleep and stops them exercising.”
Many of the headlines on the stories tend to overstate the risks associated with social media, while most of the articles gave more nuanced explanations of the study results.
This was a secondary analysis of a cohort study. Cohort studies are good ways to spot patterns between factors, such as social media use, sleep, cyberbullying and mental health.
But they do not explain the relationship between factors, such as whether 1 directly causes another.
Secondary analysis means that this is a new analysis of research that’s already been published, rather than a study set up specifically to answer these questions.
What did the research involve?
Researchers used information from the Our Futures study, which questioned 12,866 children from 866 secondary schools across the UK in three waves: in 2013, when they were aged 13 to 14; in 2014, when they were aged 14 to 15; and in 2015, when they were aged 15 to 16.
In 2013, teenagers were asked about their social media use, but not about their mental health or wellbeing.
In 2014, they were asked to fill in a questionnaire that assessed mental health and psychological distress (GHQ12).
In 2015, they filled in Office for National Statistics questionnaires about their life satisfaction, wellbeing, happiness and anxiety.
Social media use was categorised by frequency of use, with “very frequent” use meaning that they checked into social media sites three times a day or more.
Researchers looked at the link between social media frequency of use from 2013 onwards and how it was related to mental health in 2014 and wellbeing in 2015.
They then looked at known factors that can also affect mental health and wellbeing, and that have been linked previously to social media use.
These factors were cyberbullying, sleep duration and physical activity. Children were asked about these in 2014, and also asked about cyberbullying in 2013.
The researchers adjusted the figures on social media use to see how much of the effect on mental health and wellbeing could be explained by these other factors. They did the analyses separately for girls and boys.
What were the basic results? As they expected, researchers found “very frequent” social media use was linked to poorer mental health and wellbeing.
“Very frequent” use rose from 42.6 per cent in 2013 to 68.5 per cent in 2015, and was more common among girls. In 2014, 19.0 per cent of children were psychologically distressed, according to their GHQ12 score:
*27.5 per cent of girls who used social media very frequently had a score indicating psychological distress. Compared with those who used social media once daily, frequent users were more likely to have psychological distress after taking into account other factors (adjusted odds ratio (aOR) 1.31, 95 per cent confidence interval (CI) 1.06 to 1.63)
14.9% of boys who used social media very frequently had a score indicating psychological distress. Again, compared with those who used social media once daily, frequent users were more likely to have psychological distress after taking into account other factors (aOR 1.67, 95 per cent CI 1.24 to 2.26)
But once cyberbullying, sleep duration and physical activity were taken into account, the link between social media use and psychological distress for girls and boys was much weaker.
Cyberbullying seemed to have the biggest effect on psychological distress, followed by lack of sleep.
Similar results were found for wellbeing for girls, who showed decreased life satisfaction and happiness, and increased anxiety, if they were very frequent users of social media.
But there was no link between wellbeing and social media frequency of use for boys.
When cyberbullying, sleep and physical activity were taken into account, the link between social media use and wellbeing for girls disappeared completely, with cyberbullying and sleep again the most important factors.
How did the researchers interpret the results?
The researchers said: “Although very frequent social media use predicted later poor mental health and wellbeing in both sexes … this association among girls appeared to be largely mediated through cyberbullying and inadequate sleep, with inadequate physical activity playing a more minor role.”
They added: “Our data suggest that interventions to reduce social media use to improve mental health might be misplaced.
“Preventative efforts should consider interventions to prevent or increase resilience to cyberbullying and to ensure adequate sleep and physical activity in young people.”
New technologies always bring anxiety about their potential dangers. But it may not be the technologies themselves that are harmful, so much as the way we use them.
Bullying in childhood is hardly new, but social media is a new platform for bullying. It makes sense that using social media frequently might expose a child to bullying, which has a negative impact on mental health.
Lack of sleep can also damage mental health, especially over the long term, and children and teenagers need more sleep than adults.
If children are awake late into the night using social media, that’s likely to cause problems, as it would if they were awake late doing other things.
This study had limitations, but it does help us to understand how technologies may be affecting children, rather than assuming it’s something intrinsic to the technology that’s causing the harm.
The study did not measure children’s mental health or wellbeing at the start, so we do not know whether their mental wellbeing increased or decreased over time.
It could be that children who were already unhappy used social media more than their happier peers. The study also relied on children self-reporting their social media use by how many times a day they looked at sites.
Many people look at sites far more often than three times a day, so the measure for “very frequent use” is not particularly precise.
And we do not know what sort of cyberbullying was taking place, or how often children experienced it.
Although the study does not suggest limiting social media use overall, it would make sense to try to limit the use of social media overnight (for example, by discouraging teens from taking phones into the bedroom) to help teenagers get enough sleep.
Supporting children who may be subjected to cyberbullying would also be a useful step, starting by finding out whether a child is being affected by this type of bullying.