As more and more teenagers turn to social media for entertainment and communication, researchers are working on figuring out if those apps could be affecting their mental health.
The authors of a recent study published by The Lancet say they found a link between social media use and depression, with that link being stronger for girls than boys. They write that these findings "highlight the potential pitfalls of lengthy social media use for young people's mental heath".
The team used data from nearly 11,000 14-year-old's in the United Kingdom. They say they found that greater social media use led to poor sleep, low self-esteem, poor body image, and online harassment. And these effects were amplified based on how much time teens spent online. Teens who spent more than five hours a day on social media reported a 50% increase in depressive symptoms among girls, and 35% among boys, compared to those who used social medial for only one to three hours daily.
But another recent study refutes those claims, with the authors saying their data shows no correlation between social media and depression over time.
This study was published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Lead author Taylor Heffer of Brock University says "you have to follow the same people over time in order to draw the conclusion that social media use predicts greater depressive symptoms". Her team surveyed 6th, 7th, and 8th graders in Ontario, Canada once a year for two years, and surveyed undergraduates starting in their first year of university over a 6 year span. The participants answered questions about their average time on social media, and researchers used the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale to measure depressive symptoms.
Heffer's team says their results showed social media use did not predict later depressive symptoms among teens and young adults. They did find that greater depressive symptoms predicted more social media use over time for teenage girls.
Heffer says that data could mean "there may be different groups of people who use social media for different reasons. For example, there may be a group of people who use social media to make social comparisons or turn to it when they are feeling down, while another group of people may use it for more positive reasons, such as keeping in contact with friends." She says researchers will continue to follow the group of nearly 600 students between grades 6 through 8 for the next few years, to track any potential symptoms.
Authors of the first study that did find a link between social media use and depression say they agree further studies following the same group over time would be beneficial, and will help paint a clearer picture and provide a more complete look at the relationship between social media use and young people's mental health. But, they say their findings "add weight to the growing evidence base on the potential pitfalls associated with lengthy time spent engaging on social media".
These researchers say there are a number of opportunities for helping teens cut back on social media time. For example, they say at home all family members could have limits in place for time online, and curfews for when everyone stops using their devices for the night. At school, teachers and aides could help young people learn how to navigate online life appropriately and safely. And, the community can help teens learn more about positive self-esteem. They write: 'clearly a large proportion of young people experience dissatisfaction with the way they look and how they feel about their bodies, and perhaps a broader societal shift away from the perpetuation of what are often highly distorted images of idealized beauty could help shift these types of negative perceptions."
The Lancet study's authors say they believe there are indeed benefits to be gained for young people by engaging online, but their research highlights a number of issues at play. They say given the short-term and long-term implications of having poor mental health, furthering the studies to improve our understanding of any potential trigger, including social media, is more than worthwhile.
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.