Teenage girls who use social media three times a day ‘are more likely to have anxiety because they get less sleep, exercise and are exposed to cyber bullying’
- Researchers tracked social media use and mental health in 13 to 16 year olds
- The more teenage girls used social sites, the higher rates of mental stress
- They also had lower levels of wellbeing including life satisfaction
- Around 60% of distress could be attributed to aspects of life that are affected
- The results were not as significant in boys, but it is unclear why
Children who use social media just three times a day are much more likely to have mental health issues, a study suggests.
Scientists analysed data from interviews with 13,000 teenagers that went to more than 1,000 schools across England.
University College London experts found rates of anxiety were 28 per cent higher in teenage girls who used social media more often.
Boys also suffered from scrolling through popular sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – but not by as much.
Researchers now say it’s unlikely flicking through social media sites directly harms mental health.
Instead, they believe spending hours on social media can leave girls vulnerable to cyber bullying, as well as causing a lack of sleep and exercise.
Other factors are thought to be behind the effects of social media on the mental health of boys.
A third of girls who check social media three times a day have mental health issues because they are more exposed to cyber bulling and exercise and sleep less, according to a study
Professor Russell Viner, lead researcher of the study, said: ‘Our results suggest that social media itself doesn’t cause harm.’
He added that, instead, ‘frequent use may disrupt activities that have a positive impact on mental health’.
Professor Viner said: ‘I think one of the conclusions is that social media does not displace physical activities in boys in the same way that it does in girls, which may be one of the reasons for this difference that we see.’
The teenagers were quizzed between 13 to 16 at three different time points – 2013, 2014 and 2015.
Very frequent social media use was defined as using networking sites, including WhatsApp and Snapchat, three or more times a day.
In the second year of the study, all of the participants completed a questionnaire which assessed psychological distress,
This term covered a range of different symptoms including sadness, anxiety and difficulty focusing.
Each of the teenagers were also quizzed about their sleep quality, physical activity and if they had been a victim of cyber bullying.
In the third and final year, all the participants were surveyed about their wellbeing, such as life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety.
Use of social media rocketed between 2013 and 2015, according to the findings in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal.
Just 43 per cent of boys and 51 per cent of girls used social media multiple times a day at the beginning of the study.
However, the figures had jumped to 69 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively, by 2015, the researchers discovered.
Very frequent social media use was linked to greater psychological distress in both sexes.
In girls, the more often they accessed or checked social media, the greater their psychological distress.
Some 28 per cent of girls who frequently used social media were distressed in 2014, compared with 20 per cent of those using it weekly or less.
HOW COULD TOO MUCH TIME STARING AT SCREENS AFFECT CHILDREN?
Research has shown spending too much time looking at screens – smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions, for example – can be damaging to children’s intelligence, sleep, mental health and vision.
A 2018 study by the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa found eight to 11-year-olds performed five per cent worse on brain power tests than their peers if they spent two hours per day looking at screens.
This, they suggested, may be because looking at screens isn’t as stimulating as reading, and could interfere with vital sleep.
Disturbed sleep was also the focus of a warning from the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health earlier this year, when it recommended children don’t use screens before bed.
The RCPCH said high levels of screen time are linked to a less healthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle and poorer mental health.
Dr Max Davie, a health officer said: ‘Parents need to get control of their own screen time if they are going to get control of the family’s screen time. It’s much easier to be authoritative if you practise what you preach.’
Dr Langis Michaud, a professor of optometry at the University of Montreal, wrote in The Conversation in February: ‘A rapid increase in visual problems has been noted since the introduction of the smartphone in 2007.
‘While the device itself does not emit harmful radiation, it requires the user to read its screen at a distance of 20 cm rather than the normal distance of 45cm to 50cm.
‘It has been suggested that this close distance boosts the risk of developing myopia by eight times, especially if both parents are myopic.’
And girls who used social media very frequently in the first two years of the study had lower wellbeing by the end of the project.
Their life satisfaction and happiness was 14 and 20 per cent lower, on average. And their symptoms of anxiety increased by 28 per cent.
Sleep disruption and cyber bullying caused nearly 60 per cent of psychological distress and almost all of the effect on wellbeing in girls, the authors said.
Reduced physical activity also played a role but to a much lesser extent, according to the scientists.
The findings were not as significant in the boys. The three factors explained only 12 per cent of the impact of social media use on psychological distress.
The authors accepted that their study did not capture how much time in total was spent using social media, which may have impacted the findings.
Co-author Dr Dasha Nicholls said the differences uncovered could be down to girls having higher levels of anxiety to begin with.
She also suggested it ‘could simply be attributed to girls accessing social media more frequently than boys’.
‘Cyber bullying may be more prevalent among girls,’ Dr Nicholls said. ‘Or it may be more closely associated with stress in girls than in boys.
‘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.’
Experts welcomed the study. Dr Ann DeSmet from Ghent University, Belgium, said the findings are ‘important’.
Experts said interventions that suggest cutting back on the amount of time spent on social media may not be effective.
Instead, youngsters should focus on spending more time exercising, socialising in real life and getting adequate shut-eye.
Solutions offered by the team include parents insisting their children leave their phones downstairs when they go to bed to ensure their sleep is not disrupted.
They should also monitor who their child is speaking to online to check for cyber-bullying, and make sure their child is staying active.
In the UK, more than 90 per cent of teenagers use the internet for making and talking to friends.
There is growing concern about how this impacts mental health, considering early adolescence is when mental illnesses tend to begin.
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