The public and experts have blamed social media for a lengthy list of mental health issues, including increasing levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior among young people across the world.
New research – published Tuesday in the journal Lancet Child and Adolescent Health –interviewed almost 10,000 children between the ages of 13 and 16 in England.
They were interviewed once a year from 2013 to 2015 about their frequent social-media usage, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Snapchat.
The researchers noted that they did not capture how much time participants spent on these websites, which is a limitation of the study.
However, more than three times daily was considered “very frequent.”
In 2014 and 2015, the researchers asked about the teens’ psychological distress and their personal well-being, things like life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety.
‘Social Media Hurts Girls More Than Boys’
They found that, in both sexes, very frequent social media use was associated with greater psychological distress.
The effect was more prominent among girls, the more often they checked social media, the greater their psychological distress.
It was discovered that the frequent social-media usage for girls seemed to harm health when it led to either cyberbullying or reducing their sleep and physical exercise.
Nearly 60% of the impact on psychological distress in girls could be accounted for by low sleep quality and greater exposure to cyberbullying, with decreased physical activity playing a lesser role.
However, these factors did not seem to have the same effect on boys, and the study did not notice specific ways that social networks could be harming them.
For boys, those factors explained only 12% of the effects of very frequent social media use on psychological distress.
Last month, research from Canada showed that higher levels of social media use were linked with increased depressive symptoms in adolescents.
With this study, the problem is put in a better context.
It is not necessarily that social media is causing these issues, but it is more likely the content that young people are exposed to and its hindrance of healthy sleep and exercise.
“It’s an important distinction,” said Ann DeSmet, a professor at Ghent University in Belgium, who was not involved in the research.
“If the displacement of healthy lifestyles and cyberbullying can be attenuated, the positive effects of social media use, such as encouraging social interactions, can be more endorsed,” she said.