We’ve heard it before: As much as it may be handy for keeping in touch with old classmates or family members, social media seems to do more harm than good, psychologically, especially for young people. And the refrain is increasingly common, not just from the friend everyone has who’s quit Facebook and never been happier, but from multiple research studies over several years (and, if you count it, from some of the developers of social media themselves who have sounded loud warnings about its risks).
Now, a new study from the University of Essex and University College London finds that teenagers who spend more hours a day on social media have a greater risk for depression, and the connection appears to be particularly pronounced for girls.
The team looked at data from over 10,000 14-year-olds taking part in the UK Millennial Cohort Study. Participants filled out questionnaires about their social media use, and about their mental health—for instance, depression symptoms were assessed by the Moods and Feelings Questionnaire (the teens rated how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “I felt miserable or unhappy,” “I didn’t enjoy anything at all,” “I felt so tired I just sat around and did nothing” over the past two weeks).
In general, girls used social media more than boys, with 40% of girls, and 20% of boys, using it for more than three hours per day. Only 4% of girls reported abstaining completely, compared to 10% of boys.
And the more a person used social media, the greater their likelihood for experiencing depression symptoms: 12% of light social media users and 38% of heavy social media users had depression symptoms. The team found that three to five hours of social media per day was linked to a 26% increase in depression scores in girls, vs. 21% in boys, compared to kids who just used it from one to three hours/day. For more than five hours/day of social media, the increase in depression score rose to 50% for girls and 35% for boys.
Again, this is not surprising. Over five hours per day of social media use is a huge amount by any standard, and would make up a large percentage of a person’s total awake time. It doesn’t seem odd that this level of social media would be linked to mental health issues.
The team also tried to find underlying explanations for the connection: cyberbullying and sleep deprivation both had an effect. “The most important pathways were via poor sleep and online harassment,” the authors write. “For example: more social media use linked to poor sleep which in turn was related to depressive symptoms; experiencing online harassment was linked to poor sleep, poor body image and low self-esteem; and that girls and boys with poor body image were more likely to have low self-esteem.”
The connection between social media use and depression was reduced when these other variables were taken into account, which may suggest that they—harassment, lack of sleep, and self-esteem issues—could be significant moderators. The researchers weren’t able to look at other factors that have been shown to play a role in the social media-mental health connection, including whether an individual is an active or passive user. They did look back at data from when the participants were 11, and found some complex relationships between mental health at age 11 and social media use at age 14, which suggests the connection may be nuanced and far from one-size-fits-all. The group reported earlier this year that social media use was linked to depression more strongly in girls than boys, and this disparity grew between ages 10 and 15.
Interestingly, other research out this week, a review of earlier studies by a different team at University College London, found mixed evidence for a link between screen time in general and depression. “There is moderately strong evidence for an association between screentime and depressive symptoms,” the authors conclude. “This association is for overall screentime but there is very limited evidence from only one review for an association with social media screentime. There is moderate evidence for a dose-response effect, with weak evidence for a threshold of ≥2 hours daily screentime for the association with depressive symptoms.”
But there has certainly been other research findings links, including a number of studies by Jean Twenge, a researcher who has long been studying screens’ effects on young people. She’s found social media strongly linked to depression and even suicidality in young people. And it may not be surprising that social media would affect the genders in different ways, since they may use social media in fundamentally different ways, at least on average—some experts have suggested that girls make more comparisons between themselves and others, which is notoriously bad for mental health.
While more research is being done, the advice might already be clear enough: if not cut social media out, then at least cut down, and definitely encourage our kids to do so.