Social Media Impact On Youth Mental Health 'Worse for Girls'

Liam Davenport

January 04, 2019

Greater social media use is associated with depression among teenagers due to greater online harassment, poor self-esteem, greater body dissatisfaction and poor sleep quality, with girls disproportionately affected compared to boys, UK researchers have discovered.

Prof Yvonne Kelly, Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care, University College London, looked at data on almost 11,000 children aged 14 years, asking them about their online use and mental health.

The research, which was published online by the journal EClinicalMedicine on January 4th, revealed that girls used social media more than boys, as did children from one parent or low income households.

Gender Differences

Girls were more likely to take part or be victims of online harassment than boys, to have poor quality sleep, and to have low self-esteem and body image dissatisfaction.

The results also showed that depression scores were more strongly related to social media scores in girls than boys, with scores 50% higher for girls who used social media for at least 5 hours per day versus those who used it for 1 to 3 hours per day.

Among boys, depression scores were 35% higher for those who used social media for at least 5 hours per day versus those with lower usage.

In a news release, Kelly said: "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.

"Clinical, educational and family settings are all potential points of contact where young people could be encouraged and supported to reflect not only on their social media use, but also other aspects of their lives including on-line experiences and their sleep patterns."

She continued: "At home, families may want to reflect on when and where it's ok to be on social media and agree limits for time spent online.

"Curfews for use and the overnight removal of mobile devices from bedrooms might also be something to consider."

'Important New Research'

Shirley Cramer, chief executive, Royal Society of Public Health, who was not involved in the study, commented: "This important new research confirms that we need to increase awareness and understanding amongst parents, schools and policy makers about the role of social media in our young people's mental health, particularly taking into account the increased risks for girls."

Kelly and colleagues point out that, while social media can be beneficial to young people by offering social support and the opportunity for greater knowledge, there is increasing evidence that it is associated with worse mental health.

This includes anxiety caused by online harassment and the sharing of materials potentially damaging to reputations and relationships, as well as the direct impact on sleep duration and quality from excessive use.

There has also been a great deal of debate over whether the plethora of manipulated images of idealised beauty on social media affect individuals' perception of their body image and their self-esteem.

Millennium Cohort Study

To investigate further, the team examined data on 10,904 children, including 5496 girls, from the nationally representative UK Millennium Cohort Study, all of whom were interviewed at 14 years of age.

The participants completed questionnaires in private on social media use, mental health, online harassment, sleep, self-esteem, and body image.

In addition, their parents or carers answered questions on their socioeconomic circumstances, and the child's emotional difficulties, at 11 years of age.

The researchers found that girls were more likely than boys to use social media for ≥3 hours per day, at 43.1% versus 21.9%, while only 4.4% of girls did not use social media at all, compared with 10.2% of boys.

Girls in lower income and one parent households were more likely than any other group to use social media for ≥5 hours per day.

In contrast, girls and boys who had high internalising symptom scores at 11 years of age were more likely to not use social media at all, although girls in this category were also more likely to use social media for ≥5 hours per day.

Different for Girls

The team says that girls were more likely than boys to be involved in online harassment, whether as a victim or a perpetrator, at 38.7% versus 25.1%.

Girls were also more likely than boys to have low self-esteem, at 12.8% versus 8.9%, body weight dissatisfaction, at 78.2% versus 68.3%, and to be unhappy about their appearance, at 15.4% versus 11.8%.

Girls were more likely to report sleeping <7 hours per night than boys, at 13.4% versus 10.8%, and were more likely to report disrupted sleep either often, at 27.6% versus 20.2%, or most of the time, at 12.7% versus 7.4%.

Depression scores were higher in girls than boys, at a geometric mean score of 4.6 versus 2.5, and social media use was found to have a significantly greater association with depression scores in girls than in boys (p<0.001).

Regression analysis indicated that, compared with social media use of 1 to ≤3 hours per day, depression scores were 26% higher for girls and 21% higher for boys who used social media for 3 to <5 hours per day, and 50% for girls and 35% higher for boys who used social medial for ≥5 hours per day.

These results were explained primarily by poor sleep and online harassment, as well as lower self-esteem and greater body weight dissatisfaction, linked to increasing social media use, which affected both girls and boys.

The team writes: "Our results and those of others highlight the likely complexity of mechanisms at play.

"Future research using prospectively collected data from the same population sample with the use of repeated measures and the application of causal analyses will help to provide a more comprehensive picture of the relationship between social media use and young people's mental health."

They add: "Given the short- and long-term implications of having poor mental health, improving our understanding of underlying processes could help identify opportunities for interventions with benefits across the life course."

The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

No conflicts of interest declared.

EClinicalMedicine 2018. doi: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2018.12.005.

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