It’s a scenario playing out in households, school hallways and any teen gathering place around the world. Teens chatting with friends, sharing photos, liking, commenting and sharing.
Teens spend a lot of time on social media.
The time teens spend on social media has risen significantly by 62.5 per cent since 2012, and it’s still rising. Last year it was estimated that the typical teen spends around 2.6 hours every day on social media.
Many have argued that teens spend too much time staring at screens, and that this is responsible for a rise in rates of depression and anxiety in teenagers.
But researchers from Brigham Young University have found that might not be true.
The study, published in Computers in Human Behaviour, involved yearly questionnaires over a period of eight years. The researchers enlisted 500 young people between the ages of 13 and 20 to complete the survey every year. They were asked how much time they would spend using social media on a typical day. To determine levels of depression and anxiety in the young people, the surveys asked respondents questions with scales that indicated anxiety levels and depressive symptoms.
At the age of 13, those surveyed said they used social media around 31-60 minutes every day. The amount of time spent on social media rose consistently through the teen years so that by the time those surveyed were in early adulthood, they reported using social media for two hours or more every day.
However, the researchers did not find a link between time spent on social media and increased levels of anxiety and depression.
If a teen increased their social media time, that didn’t make them more depressed, and if they decreased their time spent on social media that didn’t make them any less depressed.
“Social media did not influence mental health when examined on an individual level. In other words, if an individual increased their social media worse in a given year, their depression/anxiety did not get worse. If they reduced their social media time, then depression and anxiety did not get better,” Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University and author of the study told Theravive.
She says it’s not the amount of time on social media that could potentially influence mental health outcomes. She argues that two teens could spend the same amount of time on social media, yet have greatly different experiences.
“Screen time doesn't matter all that much when it comes to mental health. I do believe that social media has an impact; however it is not the amount of time that they are spending, it is the way they are using it,” she said.
She says there are healthy ways teens can use social media, and past studies have shown it could even benefit users.
“There has been quite a lot of research on this topic. For example, using social media in active ways tends to decrease depressive symptoms,” Coyne said.
She argues actively commenting, posting and liking other content on social media is better than being a passive user mindlessly scrolling through a social media feed. Limiting screen time immediately before bed is also important. Too much screen time too close to bedtime can impact sleep quality, and good sleep is a known protective factor for good mental health.
Coyne also advises that teens be intentional with their social media use before they even access it. She says if a teen gets on social media specifically to connect with others or seek out certain information, this can have a better impact than just jumping on when bored.
The researchers are hopeful the study will help society move past debates about screen time and instead focus on the content and context of social media use in teenagers. Coyne argues social media can be an easy target, with many believing it is responsible for what many refer to as the mental health crisis facing the United States. But the results of the study prove that it is more complex than that.
Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.