The Lancet Child and adolescent health: mental
The first study looking at three mechanisms by which very frequent use of social media can harm mental health suggests that efforts should be made to reduce young people’s exposure to harmful content and the impact it has on healthy activities (such as sleep and exercise). The authors suggest that direct effects, such as on brain development, are unlikely and therefore interventions simply aimed at reducing social media use may be misplaced.
Very frequent use of social media may compromise adolescent girls’ mental health by increasing exposure to bullying and reducing sleep and physical exercise, according to an observational study of nearly 10,000 adolescents aged 13 to 16 studied for three years in England between 2013 and 2015, Published in The Lancet Child and adolescent health newspaper. The impact on boys’ mental health seems mainly due to other mechanisms, not revealed by this study.
In the UK, over 90% of teenagers use the internet for social media. There are growing concerns about their use of social media and the impact on their mental health and wellbeing, although evidence of this impact remains conflicting. Half of all mental illnesses begin around age 14, making adolescence a crucial time for promoting mental health. There is some evidence that the use of social media can have a positive influence on health, for example by reducing social isolation. However, few long-term studies exist and few have examined the mechanisms that might impact well-being.
“Our findings suggest that social media itself does not cause harm, but that frequent use may disrupt activities that positively impact mental health such as sleep and exercise, while increasing exposure. young people to harmful content, particularly the negative experience of cyberbullying,” says Professor Russell Viner of UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, who led the research. 
For the current study, scientists analyzed data from three sets of interviews with teenagers from nearly 1,000 schools across England, as they progressed from Year 9 in 2013 (aged 13 to 14). to grade 11 in 2015 (15 to 16 years old). -old). It is the first observational study to track social media use and mental health during these important early teenage years with enough participants to make it representative of the whole of England.
At all three time points, youth indicated the frequency with which they viewed or accessed social media. Very frequent social media use was defined in the study as using social media, instant messaging, or photo-sharing services such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and WhatsApp multiple times (three or more) per day. The authors note that one of the limitations of the survey data is that it does not capture how much time teenagers spend using social media, only how often they view or access it.
During the second year of the study, participants completed the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), for which a high score indicates psychological distress. They were also asked about their experiences with cyberbullying, sleep and physical activity. Over the past year, participants were asked about three aspects of their personal well-being – life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety, using standard questions provided by the Office for National Statistics. When the authors found significant associations between adolescent social media use and psychological distress or well-being, they assessed the extent to which this could be attributed to cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity. .
In 2013, out of 13,000 children surveyed, 43% of boys and 51% of girls used social networks several times a day. By 2014, this figure had risen to 51% and 68% respectively. In 2015, 69% of boys and 75% of girls used social media several times a day.
In both sexes, very frequent use of social media was associated with greater psychological distress. Among girls, the more often they access or consult social networks, the greater their psychological distress – in 2014, 28% of girls who use social networks very frequently declared psychological distress on the general health questionnaire, compared to 20% of those who use it weekly or less. However, this effect was not as clear in boys.
The 2015 Wellbeing Survey found that persistent and very frequent use of social media in 2013 and 2014 predicted lower wellbeing among girls, with girls who regularly used social media reporting very frequently lower life satisfaction and happiness and higher anxiety in 2015. In contrast, no significant associations were identified by the survey among boys.
Some previous studies have suggested that previous mental health problems are associated with greater use of social media and the authors note that it is possible that this was the case during the first year of the current study. However, in the second and third years, their results strongly suggest causal links between social media use and mental health and well-being.
The authors found that almost all of the effects on girls’ wellbeing in 2015 were due to cyberbullying, reduced sleep, and reduced physical activity. They also found that almost 60% of the impact on girls’ psychological distress in 2014 could be explained by disruptions in their sleep and greater exposure to cyberbullying. Reduced physical activity also played a lesser role.
In contrast, cyberbullying, sleep and physical activity appeared to explain only 12% of the impact of very frequent social media use on psychological distress in boys. These findings suggest that there are other mechanisms behind the effects of social media on boys’ mental health. The authors suggest that these influences are likely to be indirect, as they are for girls, rather than due to social media exposure per se, but more research is needed to reveal what these indirect influences might be.
Co-author Dr Dasha Nicholls of Imperial College London, UK, says: “The clear gender differences we found could simply be attributed to girls accessing social media more frequently. than boys, or that girls had higher levels of anxiety to start with. Cyberbullying may be more prevalent among girls, or it may be more closely associated with stress in girls than in boys. However , as other reports have also found clear gender differences, the results of our study make it all the more important to undertake more detailed studies of the mechanisms of social media effects by gender. 
Writing in a linked comment, Dr Ann DeSmet of Ghent University, Belgium, says: “These results are important for at least two reasons. First, social media use among young people need not be as negative as is often assumed. and cyberbullying can be mitigated, the positive effects of using social media, such as encouraging social interactions, can be further endorsed. These findings showing nearly complete mediation pathways may also inspire researchers to investigate the mediators of other media uses that are generally considered harmful (eg gaming). Second, the joint associations of multiple lifestyles with mental health indicate the importance of multibehavioural school programs in promoting mental health in youth. This article demonstrates that sleep, cyberbullying, and physical activity can be important lifestyles to target to protect and improve youth mental health.
NOTES TO EDITORS
No specific funding was obtained for this study. It was conducted by researchers from UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health and Imperial College School of Medicine.
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