For several years now, scientists and sociologists alike have been reporting on social media’s influence on mental health. They have shown correlations with self-esteem issues, social isolation, depression, and more. One new study performed by the University College and Imperial College in London goes one step further by putting forth an argument explaining this correlation.
Researchers from the two universities spent two years tracking around 10,000 participants ranging in age from 13 to 14 at the time of the study’s first visit. During the initial study visit, participants filled out surveys about how many times per day they used social media apps. They then returned for another visit during the second year of the study, when researchers asked them about issues such as cyberbullying and evaluated their physical activity levels and sleep schedules.
During the final study visit, participants spoke about their overall well-being, anxiety levels, and life satisfaction levels. The researchers wanted to find out whether sleep loss and cyberbullying could help to explain the correlation between social media use and mental health.
The researchers also tracked the teens’ social media use over the course of the two-year study. They found that both girls and boys were signing on more frequently as time went by. While only 43% of boys and 51% of girls were using social media more than once a day during the first year, those numbers rose to 69% and 75% respectively by the end of the study.
The researchers used the data collected during surveys, interviews, and social media monitoring to explore the effect of social media on the participants’ mental health. They found that teens who used social media multiple times per day experienced more psychological distress than those who used it once a day or less. They also found that girls reported twice as much psychological distress as boys.
When the team adjusted their findings to adjust for the factors evaluated during the second year of the study, cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity, there was no longer a statistically significant connection between repeated daily use and increased psychological distress. They found that cyberbullying and lack of sleep, alone, explained around 60% of social media-induced psychological distress.
Comparison to Previous Research
Prior research into the connection between social media use and teens’ mental health focused on whether it was in the essence of social media to cause psychological distress. Researchers have previously established a connection between making comparisons with other people’s lives and lower self-esteem.
Other studies have evaluated the level of impact that social media use has on teens’ day-to-day lives. Excessive social media use can cut into time that could otherwise be spent engaging in face-to-face social activities, getting exercise, becoming more familiar with STEM by creating something like a diesel generator and focusing on personal goals.
The strong connection between cyberbullying, sleep deprivation, and lower levels of physical activity and psychological distress suggests that the connection between social media use and mental health isn’t as clear as it once seemed. It’s possible that social media platforms, themselves, aren’t to blame. Rather, teens who spend large amounts of time on social media may be neglecting other important real-life activities like sleep and exercise, both of which play a valuable role in maintaining good mental health.
The study also highlights the role that exposure to cyberbullying, a uniquely negative form of online content plays in disrupting teens’ mental health. Like previous studies, this one neglects to address all possible factors that could influence the impact that social media has on teens. When considered alongside previous studies, the takeaway is clear: teens should use social media wisely and should not allow it to overtake other important aspects of their lives.