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Taking the me out of social media

guest blogger9 October 2019

Emma Walker, second year BBSRC-ESRC funded Centre for Doctoral Training in Biosocial Research PhD student at University College London’s Institute for Epidemiology and Health Care, describes how getting involved with research on social media helped her to reflect on her own usage. 

It’s 00.23 and I should be in bed. I’ve got lots on tomorrow but I’ve spent the last 45 minutes scrolling. Scrolling through the profiles of Instagram “life style coaches”, yogis, models; each collection of photos perfectly curated to appeal to my desire for millennial aesthetic.

Everything feels so much better than anything I have. And actually, in the world of Instagram, I know that everything is much better than what I have. Number of followers or number of likes on each post has conveniently quantified this for me.

The next evening, as part of my public health PhD work, I’m reading Professor Yvonne Kelly’s paper laying out the effects of social media use on the mental health of girls. I diligently make notes “.. greater social media use related to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem and poor body image .. ” “..girls affected more than boys..” and pause periodically to check my phone.

All my friends are at the pub having a great time, another friend just put up a post where she looks amazing, it already has 50 likes. I get to the methods section of the paper “how many times in the last 2 weeks have you felt miserable or unhappy; found it hard to think properly or concentrate; felt lonely; thought you could never be as good as other kids…”.

Then the penny drops. Why do I think I’m immune? I’m like the lifelong smoker who’s confused by their cancer diagnosis: “I never thought it would happen to me.” The idea starts to filter in: I don’t need this in my life. In fact, I need this to not be a part of my life.

The next day I deactivate my Instagram account. That day I meet a friend for coffee in a hipster café and don’t take a picture of my coffee. That night I get to sleep by 11pm. The next day I work more productively than I’ve worked in weeks.

An opportunity to get involved comes up: the National Literacy Trust are really interested in Yvonne’s work and are keen to put together an event for young people. A great group of undergraduates and I devise a series of activities to find out what young people think about the research.

The first section would involve 4 zones at the front of the Renaissance Learning centre room for Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree and Strongly Disagree we put a series of statements on the board and ask the pupils to move to a zone and explain why. We include statements on a range of topics including cyber bullying, sleep deprivation, self-esteem and body image and parents and social media.

On the day, the 50 enthusiastic 11-14 year olds from 3 schools across London jostle about, keen to share their opinions and to hear one another’s. I’m amazed at the diversity of ideas, overall willingness to get involved and the mental health literacy of many of the students.

Some responses are predictable; the boys happy to appear less concerned about body image, many keen to state in front of their teachers that social media does not in any way disrupt their studies. Some are surprising; only a handful of pupils had been on social media before arriving at the event that day (a significantly lower proportion than the adults running it!) Other responses are hard to read; were the gaggle of girls laughing at the very idea of social media posts making you feel left out, honest or desperate to seem not to care?

A clear feeling was the young people’s frustration at their parents use of phones and social media. Many expressed irritation at the rules their parents have established – no phones at the table, in bedrooms, after 8pm – that they, themselves constantly break.

One boy described having to ask the same question 3 times before his dad will look up from his phone. The idea that our event should be run for parents was cheered.

Next we presented them with the evidence base for the possible impact of social media and mental health then asked them to make public health campaign like posters with top tips that could go up in their schools. We were presented with a beautiful collection of posters with thoughtful advice, carefully put together information, clever slogans and eye catching drawings. Audio recordings from the day gave further insights from the young who readily offered tips and advice for younger children.

Overall, I think the event was a success. My main impression was that these young people are actually very well equipped to protect themselves from the potential mental health impact of social media. That in fact it may be people in their 20s, who have grown up in the full glare of social media and its pressures, who are at the greatest risk.

It was a real privilege being able to discuss this topic with young people and the message that stood out the most from them is the opportunity parents have to make a difference by practicing what they preach.  Chances are they’ll benefit from switching off!

As for me, it’s now been 6 months since I deleted Instagram and whilst it hasn’t been plain sailing – I have got this itch for the buzz of an influx of likes –  for the time being I’m happy and I would wholeheartedly recommend it!

Taking time out to scroll free

guest blogger29 August 2018

As the Royal Society for Public Health launches its #ScrollFreeSeptember campaign, encouraging people to take a break from social media, Professor Yvonne Kelly from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL, discusses new research on the negative impacts of social media use on young people’s health. She explains how the findings point to the need to limit the time that young people, especially girls, spend on social media.

The ScrollFreeSeptember campaign accompanies the launch of a second parliamentary inquiryin less than 12 months into the impact of social media use on young people’s mental health and well-being. Our Centre will be submitting a range of important new findings to that inquiry which seeks to grow the evidence base in an area where there is a great deal of hot debate, but where little is really known and understood.

For our team of researchers, the first indication that all was not well in the world of social media and young people’s mental health came in 2015 when we found that children who were heavy users of screen-based media were less happy and had more social and emotional problems than their peers who used it moderately. Children who used social media sites for chatting were also less likely to be happy and more likely to have problems than their peers who did not.

In March this year, our widely covered work on the trends for boys’ and girls’ social media use added weight to recent calls from the Children’s Commissioner for England to, as she put it, call time on a “life of likes”. In her report, Anne Longfield argued that there was clear evidence of children finding it hard to manage the impact of online life. She said children as young as eight were becoming anxious about their identity as they craved social media likes and comments for validation.

Social media and girls

Our research, based on the experiences of 10,000 children aged 10-15 who took part in the Understanding Society study, showed that this seemed to be the case particularly for girls who used social media for more than an hour a day. 10 year-old girls in the study who spent an hour or more on a school day chatting online had considerably more social and emotional problems later on – by age 15 – than girls of the same age who spent less or no time on social media. The number of problems they faced also increased as they got older, which was not the case for boys.

It was interesting to note that more girls than boys were using social media and for greater periods of time. At age 15, 43 percent of girls and 31 per cent of boys were using it for between one and three hours per day, with 16 and 10 per cent using it for more than four hours.

We think this tells us something important about the different ways that girls and boys interact with social media. For example, girls may be more likely than boys to compare their lives with those of friends and peers – whether those are ‘filtered’ selfies or positive posts about friendships, relationships or material possessions – these could lead to feelings of inadequacy, lower levels of satisfaction and poorer wellbeing.

The pressures associated with having peers like or ‘approve’ status updates and a perceived fall in or lack of popularity could add further pressure at, what for many teenagers is a tricky time in their lives.

Boys are more likely to be gaming than interacting online in the way just described and that wasn’t covered in this research, so it’s possible that for boys, changes in well-being may be more related to gaming success or skill.

But one of the key takeaways of this research is how social media use as a very young person is linked to lower levels of happiness later on – the effects are not short term – they have longer term consequences and

Social media and depression

More recently, we have turned our attention to the social media experiences of the children in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), using information on 11,000 14 year-olds to look at how social media use is linked with depression. We’ve also been asking ourselves what the pathways between these two things might look like, something that’s not really been done before. So, for example, are heavier users of social media getting too little sleep or having trouble getting to sleep because they are checking accounts at bedtime; are they experiencing cyberbullying either as victims or perpetrators; do they appear to have low self-esteem or a negative view of how they look? All these questions can help us better understand what’s at play and come up with better approaches to tackling these problems.

Preliminary findings reinforce the message that girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media. Once again we see more girls than boys in this study using social media and for longer periods of time.

Does using social media affect literacy?

A follow up piece of research looks at whether there are links between the amount of time young people spend on social media and their levels of literacy. Findings suggest a link and that this is the same for boys and girls.

In this research we look at whether the more time young people spend on social media, the less time they have for the things that might improve their literacy such as reading for enjoyment and doing homework.

There are some clear messages from our research so far:

  1. Heavy users of social media are less happy and have more problems at school and at home – interventions to help them limit and manage their social media use better are likely to be important
  2. Girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media and may be an important group to focus on among those looking to mitigate thse effects
  3. More hours spent on social media appear to impact negatively on young people’s wellbeing and could have knock on effects for their longer term prospects at school and work

Social media companies have been accused by the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt among others of turning a blind eye to the problem and the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has been asked to recommend healthy limits for screen time.

Our research indicates that it may indeed be time for recommended healthy and safe limits of social media use, that a focus on girls, especially initiatives to boost their mental health could help mitigate some of the negative effects.

The RSPH is hoping that going scroll free this September might give us all a chance to get our social media use a little more balanced, to think about the benefits to be enjoyed and the negatives to be avoided.

As well as pausing to think about our social media use and how it affects us, it will be an opportunity to examine the facts of the matter, a time to digest new, solid evidence that these large scale studies can help us with and consider the potential longer term costs and consequences of doing nothing.

The forthcoming inquiry hopes to inform “progressive and practical solutions”, including a proposed industry Code of Practice and tools for educators, parents and young people themselves to help them enjoy the benefits and eliminate the negative effects of their social media. We wholly support those efforts and hope they result in positive changes that will make campaigns like ScrollFreeSeptember unnecessary in the future.

This blog article is courtesy of the Child of our Time blog, which is a blog about the health and happiness of children living in the UK. led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London,