A new mobile phone will be in the pockets of many teenagers as they head back to school in the coming days. The period between Xmas and New Year will have been spent signing up for social media apps where they can chat, share photos and videos with friends, all part of the excitement of owning a new device. But how many of these young people and their parents are aware of the potential pitfalls of spending too much time on social media sites? And what can parents, teachers and young people themselves do to maximize the benefits of life online whilst minimising those pitfalls? It’s a question that Yvonne Kelly, Director of the ESRC International Centre for Life course Studies at UCL and colleagues have been asking as part of a major programme of research on social media use and young people’s wellbeing.
Today they publish key new research, which provides much-needed new evidence on the links between heavy social media use and depression in teenagers. The research shines light on the underlying processes that could be at work and that might explain the link between the two. Here, Yvonne explains how their research might help policymakers, educators, parents and young people themselves better understand and prevent the potential pitfalls of living too much of their life on social media platforms.
2018 has seen a growing chorus of voices including those of the former and current Health Secretaries, Jeremy Hunt and Matt Hancock calling for a thorough investigation of the links between social media use and the growing numbers of young people struggling with mental health issues. Indeed Matt Hancock issued “an urgent warning” on the potential dangers of social media on children’s mental health, stating that the threat of social media on mental health is similar to that of sugar on physical health.
The Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies has been tasked by the Government with leading that investigation and with coming up with evidence based recommendations around what constitutes safe social media use and what changes need to be made and by whom to make that a reality. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) recently issued the first ever guidance on managing children’s screen time, calling for further research particularly into social media.
In recent months, we and others have submitted written and oral evidence to two Parliamentary inquiries in this area and had discussions with the Royal Society for Public Health which is campaigning actively to get us all thinking harder about our social media use.
We’ve talked about our early research showing that 10 year-old girls who used social media sites for chatting had more social and emotional problems at age 15 than their peers who used them less or not at all. Those problems continued to get worse as they got older.
Our new research published in The Lancet’s EClinical Medicine draws stronger links between heavy social media use and depressive symptoms in girls and boys at the age of 14. We look at the possible ways in which social media use might linked to depressive symptoms. We consider 4 potential pathways – through young people’s sleep patterns, their experiences of online harassment, body image and self-esteem. It is the first research to look at all of these potential pathways at the same time.
Our data for this research came from the Millennium Cohort Study, which has followed the lives of some 19,000 children born at the turn of the century. This piece of research, looked at the social media use and mental health of nearly 11,000 of the study’s participants.
Social media use
In line with our earlier research, we saw that girls were heavier users of social media than boys with two fifths of them using it for more than 3 hours per day (compared with one fifth of boys). Girls were a lot less likely NOT to use social media at all (4 per cent girls and 10 per cent boys).
Examining the underlying processes that might be linked with social media use and depression, we saw a number of really striking findings including:
- 40 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys had experience of online harassment or cyberbullying
- 78 per cent of girls and 68 per cent of boys were unhappy with their body/weight and 15 percent girls and 12 per cent of boys were unhappy with their appearance
- 13 per cent of girls and 9 per cent of boys had low self-esteem
- 13 per cent of girls and 11 per cent of boys reported getting fewer than 7 hours sleep per night and 40 per cent of girls and 28 per cent of boys said their sleep was often disrupted
Girls, it seems from these findings, are struggling more with these aspects of their lives than boys – in some cases considerably more. When we turned our attention to the signs of depression exhibited by our participants, we could see that here too girls fared worse with scores on average twice as high as those of boys.
The link between social media use and depressive symptoms was stronger for girls compared with boys. For girls, greater daily hours of social media use corresponded to a stepwise increase in depressive symptoms and the percent with clinically relevant symptoms. For boys, higher depressive symptom scores were seen among those reporting 3 or more hours of daily social media use.
There was a clear link between social media use and all the pathways we investigated – more time spent on social media related to having poorer sleep, more experiences of on-line harassment, unhappiness with the way they look and low self esteem. In turn, these things were directly related to having depressive symptoms.
A closer look at the pathways was also revealing. The most important routes from social media use to depressive symptoms were shown to be via poor sleep and online harassment.
Social media use linked directly to having poor sleep which in turn was related directly to having more depressive symptoms. The role of online harassment was more complex, with multiple pathways through poor sleep, self-esteem and body image, all of which linked directly to depressive symptoms.
Potential pitfalls and key routes
Our findings add weight to the growing evidence base on the potential pitfalls associated with lengthy time spent engaging on social media. In particular they point to poor sleep and online harrassment as being key routes between social media use and depression.
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. They add weight to the Screen Time Guidance issued by the RCPCH today, particularly the suggestion to set and agree child appropriate time limits on screen use.
When it comes to social media use specifically, our research indicates that the a similar approach could be useful. 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 on-line experiences and their sleep patterns.
At home, families may want to reflect on when and where it’s ok to be on social media and agree limits for time spent online. Curfews for use and the overnight removal of mobile devices from bedrooms might also be something to consider. School seems an obvious setting for children and young people to learn how to navigate online life appropriately and safely and for interventions aimed at promoting self-esteem. Clearly a large proportion of young people experience dissatisfaction with the way they look and how they feel about their bodies and perhaps a broader societal shift away from the perpetuation of what are often highly distorted images of idealised beauty could help shift these types of negative perceptions.
As we head into 2019, millions of young people will be getting their first experiences of life online using the devices they got for Xmas. They will rapidly become expert at downloading apps, posting photos and interacting with their peers. With the gift there was no instruction manual to help them understand and navigate some of the pitfalls our research outlines. We hope our work brings, at least, some guidance for all those keen to ensure these children continue to thrive and do well, so that they enjoy the benefits that new digital technology brings whilst staying safe and happy.
Social media use and adolescent mental health: Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Afshin Zilanawala, Cara Booker and Amanda Sacker and is published in The Lancet’s EClinicalMedicine journal.