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Social media may impact mental health in teenagers

Roshini Claire Anthony
11 Feb 2019

Long hours spent on social media may increase the risk of depression in teenagers, with a particularly strong effect in girls, according to results of the UK Millennium Cohort Study.

A total of 10,904 adolescents aged 14 years completed the Mood and Feelings Questionnaire-short version and provided information on their social media use. Use of social media for 3 hours/day was more common among girls than boys (43.1 percent vs 21.9 percent), with a smaller proportion of girls than boys reporting no social media use (4 percent vs 10 percent). Compared with boys, girls were also more likely to have poor self-esteem (12.8 percent vs 8.9 percent), be unhappy with their weight (78.2 percent vs 68.3 percent), frequently experience disrupted sleep (27.6 percent vs 20.2 percent), and be involved in online harassment, be it as perpetrator or victim (38.7 percent vs 25.1 percent).

After adjusting for confounders*, longer use of social media (3 hours) increased the risk for depression symptoms compared with less use (1  to <3 hours), with the risk increasing with longer hours of use and a stronger association seen in girls compared with boys (26 and 50 percent increased risk, respectively, for 3 to <5 hours and 5 hours of use among girls and 21 and 35 percent increase, respectively, for boys; pinteraction<0.001).

The risk was slightly mediated when online harassment was added to the model (17 and 30 percent increased risk of depression with 3 to <5 hours and 5 hours of use, respectively, in girls and 16 and 27 percent increased risk in boys compared with 1–3 hours), while adding sleep quantity or quality instead saw a 28 and 21 percent increase in depressive symptoms among girls and boys, respectively, with 5 hours of social media use. When taking into consideration self-esteem, there was a 26 and 31 percent increase in risk of depressive symptoms in girls and boys, respectively, while the addition of body image saw a 30 percent increased risk in both girls and boys with 5 hours of social media use. 

The main pathways linking social media use and depression appeared to be through poor sleep or online harassment, with little difference between girls and boys, said the researchers.

“[G]reater social media use was related to less sleep, taking more time to fall asleep, and more disruptions,” they said, with teenagers who used social media for 5 hours having an approximately 50 percent lower likelihood of 1 hour more of sleep, and a higher risk of depressive symptoms among those with less sleep (19 percent higher depression scores with 7 vs >9 hours of sleep).

Spending more time on social media was also associated with the risk for online harassment with those who spent ≥5 hours having higher risks of being the victim (odds ratio [OR] 1.64), perpetrator (OR, 2.71), or perpetrator-victim (OR, 2.69; p<0.001 for all). This link was associated with depressive symptom scores through sleep, poor body image, and self-esteem, said the researchers, though they cautioned against drawing any firm conclusions regarding causality due to the cross-sectional study design.

“These findings are highly relevant to current policy development on guidelines for the safe use of social media and calls on industry to more tightly regulate hours of social media use for young people,” said study lead author Professor Yvonne Kelly from University College London in London, UK.

“Clinical, educational, and family settings are all potential points of contact where young people could be encouraged and supported to reflect not only on their social media use, but also other aspects of their lives including online experiences and their sleep patterns,” she said.

“This important new research confirms that we need to increase awareness and understanding amongst parents, schools, and policy makers about the role of social media in our young people’s mental health, particularly taking into account the increased risks for girls,” said Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive, Royal Society of Public Health, London, UK, who was unaffiliated with the study.

 

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