Social media has no significant impact on teenagers' mental health, study suggests
Researchers say depression and anxiety is far more likely to be related socio-economic background, gender and ethnicity than social media use
Social media has no significant overall impact on teenagers’ anxiety, stress and depression levels, a study suggests.
New research acknowledges that it’s difficult to draw concrete conclusions because social media sites – and people’s experiences on them – can differ quite significantly.
But overall, it shows the so-called damaging effect of Facebook and other social media sitesare overblown and have little effect on teenagers’ wellbeing.
The study found that more time spent on social media at 12-13 years of age was “not associated with mental health problems” at 14-15 years of age.
Lead researcher, Ruth Plackett, of University College London, said: “I was surprised to find that there was no significant impact on mental health generally.
“I wasn’t perhaps expecting a strong effect but I thought I’d find a weak one, as you do hear a lot about people’s negative experiences in scientific research and anecdotal stories in the media.
“Our findings provide some reassurance that social media may not be as harmful to young people’s health as previously thought.
“However, we also need to be aware that social media can have both positive and negative effects on young people’s mental health and there are still many unanswered questions.”
A negative effect might involve bullying or envying another’s lifestyle – which can affect self-esteem – while a positive one could involve friendly and meaningful exchanges with others.
Dr Plackett suggests people with poorer mental health may be driven to to use social media more, leading to an association between high levels of stress and anxiety and social media use.
But rather than being a cause of stress, elevated use of social media is much more likely to be a symptom, she says.
Meanwhile, mental health issues are more likely to be the result of being from lower socio-economic backgrounds, an ethnic minority or being a girl, she suggests.
Lizzy Winstone, a mental health expert at Bristol University, who was not involved in the research, said: “This is a robust analysis of a large, nationally representative dataset.
“I think rather than worrying too much about how many minutes or hours teenagers are spending online, we need to prioritise how we can support them to use social media in a way that protects or benefits their mental health and wellbeing.
“And it is important to think carefully about how ‘social media use’ is measured. Different social media platforms have different features and functions, which are constantly evolving.
“What someone is doing online, who they talk to, the content to which they are exposed, and whether their interactions with others are positive or negative are all likely to be more important than the number of hours they spend using social media.”
One distinction, for example, may be drawn between active use – involving direct messaging and posting – and passive, where a person mostly or entirely browses, although many people will do a mixture of the two.
“Passive use of social media has been associated with social comparison, envy, and feelings of anxiety and depression, compared to active use,” notes the study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
Lucy Schonegevel, Associate Director for Policy and Practice at Rethink Mental Illness, said: “Social media is often labelled as having a negative impact on mental health, but this study is an important reminder that we can’t make assumptions about what is affecting the wellbeing of young people on the whole.
“For some, social media can even be a useful tool for connecting with others struggling with their mental health and providing mutual support, though there are important conversations to be had about how harmful content can be removed from platforms.”
This study, of 3,228 teenagers, is different from most others in that it measured their mental health over a several years.
Most studies measure mental health and social media use just once and at the same time, finding that people with greater mental health issues tend to use social media more and concluding that social media use contributes to those issues.
By measuring social media use and mental health two years apart, this study is able to get a much better sense of whether high social media use causes mental illness or is a symptom, Dr Winstone said.
Another study, carried out by Duke University in the US, took a similar ‘longitudinal’ approach, measuring mental health over time. It came to a similar conclusion. “Most effects are tiny – arguably trivial,” it found.
Last year, 18 per cent of children aged 7 to 16 years and 22 per cent of young people aged 17 to 24 years had a probable mental disorder, according to the NHS.
The number of young people with mental health conditions has increased over the last 20 years and social media has often been cited as one of the reasons.
To assess this, researchers measured their mental health and the number of hours spent on social media on a five-point scale from “none” to “seven or more hours” at the ages of 12 or 13 years before finally assessing mental health at the ages of 14 or 15.
Jess D’Cruz, Information Content Manager at Mind says: “Technologies like social media and mobile phones can help keep us in contact with people, and many of us have been using these technologies even more since the pandemic.
“This can be a great way of helping us feel connected to others, learn new things, feel part of a community, and share our feelings and experiences. But things like being constantly bombarded with people sharing news about their lives and achievements may also have negative effects on our mental health and self-esteem.
“Spending too much time online could sometimes make our mental health worse, especially if the content we’re consuming is harmful. And if we’re comparing ourselves to others online, we may find we feel more anxious, stressed, or lonely, or less confident.”
Mind offers information for young people aged 11-18 who might be struggling with their mental health: www.mind.org.uk/for-young-people.
It also has information for adults about getting a good online/offline balance.
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