Social media is a fact of life for today’s teenagers, though little is known about the impact of long-term exposure to its less than desirable aspects: cyberbullying, impossible beauty standards and violent content.
But a new study published today in the Lancet’s EClinicalMedicine journal appears to draw hard links between depression in teenagers and social media use. Using data from more than 11,000 14-year-olds in the UK, they found that girls who are depressed also tend to use social media more than boys.
For example, nearly 40 percent of girls who spent more than five hours a day on apps such as Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp also showed signs of depression, compared with 14.5 percent of boys. Regardless of length of time, girls were consistently about twice as likely to be depressed in relation to their social media use. Furthermore, girls are using social media at higher rates, with two in five of them spending three or more hours a day on social media as opposed to one in five boys.
Girls were also twice as likely to suffer from sleep issues, which researchers believe among other things could be caused by staying up late on social media and being awoken by push alerts. Poor sleep has long been associated with depressive symptoms.
Though researchers recognize that many adolescents tend to hate their bodies and lack confidence, many UK officials are warning parents against too much social media in their children’s lives.
“It is likely that excessive use of social media does lead to poorer confidence and mental health,” says Stephen Scott, director of the National Academy for Parenting Research at King’s College London.
For example, 60 percent of girls who are depressed are unhappy with their appearance and two and a half times more likely than boys to be dissatisfied with their weight. And where else are they likely to be bombarded with images of unattainable physiques than social media? Cyberbullying, too, can contribute to poor self esteem. Again, girls who showed signs of depression were also twice as likely to have been victims of online harassment.
“These findings are highly relevant to current policy development on guidelines for the safe use of social media, and calls on industry to more tightly regulate hours of social media use for young people,” says lead researcher Yvonne Kelly, professor at University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, who co-led the research. “Girls, it seems, are struggling with these aspects of their lives more than boys, in some cases considerably so.”