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Cyberbullying, sleep disruption drive negative effect of social media on mental health in teenage girls

Roshini Claire Anthony
13 Sep 2019

The impact of social media use on mental health in teenage girls is primarily due to cyberbullying and disruption in sleep and physical activity, according to an observational study of teenagers in the UK.

“[A]lthough 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,” said the researchers.

“[S]leep and bullying are more powerful determinants of wellbeing in young people than is digital screen use,” they added.

The study was conducted using data from the Our Futures study which comprised 12,866 individuals aged 13–16 years in England. The study was divided into three waves where waves 1, 2, and 3 comprised individuals aged 13–14, 14–15, and 15–16 years, respectively. Information on social media use, mental health and wellbeing, and potential mediating factors (ie, cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity) was obtained from the UK Data Service as well as from the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ12) completed by participants during wave 2 (n=9,552) and surveys during wave 3 (n=7,922).

Between waves 1 and 3, “very frequent” use of social media (multiple times/day) increased among boys (from 34.4 to 61.9 percent) and girls (from 51.4 to 75.4 percent).

Very frequent social media use at wave 1 was associated with an elevated risk of psychological distress* at wave 2 (adjusted odds ratio [adjOR], 1.31; p=0.014 among girls and adjOR, 1.67; p=0.0009 among boys). Compared with social media use of once/day or less, persistent very frequent use over waves 1 and 2 was tied to a higher risk of psychological distress (OR, 1.74 [boys] and OR, 1.50 [girls]; p<0.0001 for both). [Lancet Child Adolesc Health 2019;doi:10.1016/S2352-4642(19)30233-0]

The effect of very frequent social media use on psychological distress in girls was mediated primarily by cyberbullying (33.4 percent), though inadequate sleep also played a role. In boys, cyberbullying, inadequate sleep, and low (less than once/week) physical activity were mediators, though just by 12.1 percent, and 9.4 percent by cyberbullying specifically.

Girls with persistent very frequent social media use over waves 1 and 2 had a significantly increased risk for lower wellbeing, specifically decreased life satisfaction (adjOR, 0.86; p=0.039) or happiness (adjOR, 0.80; p=0.0013), and increased anxiety (adjOR, 1.28; p=0.0007) at wave 3. The impact on these outcomes was not seen in boys (p=0.10, 0.27, and 0.24 for life satisfaction, happiness, and anxiety, respectively).

Persistent very frequent social media use over waves 1–3 yielded similar findings, with decreased satisfaction and happiness and increased anxiety among girls and no effect among boys.

“For the association of persistent social media use with later wellbeing … each of cyberbullying, inadequate sleep, and physical activity appeared to mediate part of the association between very frequent social media use and life satisfaction, happiness, and anxiety among girls,” said the researchers. The mediators collectively accounted for an estimated 80.1 percent of the association between frequent social media use and life satisfaction, 47.7 percent of the association with happiness, and 32.4 percent of the association with anxiety, they added.

“[T]hese findings suggest that there are other mechanisms by which frequent social media use impairs mental health in boys,” said the researchers, calling for more research into identifying these mechanisms.

“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. Cyberbullying may be more prevalent among girls, or it may be more closely associated with stress in girls than in boys,” said study co-author Dr Dasha Nicholls from Imperial College London, London, UK. “However, as other reports have also found clear sex differences, the results of our study make it all the more important to undertake further detailed studies of the mechanisms of social media effects by gender,” she said.

 

A paradigm shift needed?

“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 cyberbullying,” said study lead author Professor Russell Viner from the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, London, UK.

“Our data suggest that interventions to reduce social media use to improve mental health might be misplaced. Preventive efforts should consider interventions to prevent or increase resilience to cyberbullying and ensure adequate sleep and physical activity in young people,” said the researchers.

In addition, the use of social media in this age group would have fewer negative outcomes if cyberbullying and “displacement of healthy lifestyle” can be avoided, said Dr Ann DeSmet from Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium, in a commentary. [Lancet Child Adolesc Health 2019;doi;10.1016/S2352-4642(19)30233-0]

 

 

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