New SPHR research published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research has found little evidence to suggest that spending more time on social media is associated with more mental health problems in young people in the UK. However, the study found that self-esteem may play a role in the relationship between social media use and mental health, so interventions that focus on this could be more effective and worthy of further investigation.
The World Health Organization reports that 1 in 7 adolescents (10–19 years old) experience mental disorders. The prevalence of mental disorders in young people has increased in the last 20 years. The reasons for this are complex and influenced by many factors, including the use of social media. From its emergence in the early 2000s, social media has rapidly grown with a recent survey showing that 97% of young people use at least one social media platform. There is increasing concern about the potential impact increased social media use has on the mental health of young people.
Previous research paints an unclear picture about how social media use may relate to young people’s mental health. While some studies have linked increased social media use with depression and anxiety, others have found it can increase social support, strengthen bonds, and reduce loneliness. Many of these studies have used cross-sectional samples (obtained at specific points in time) and may not be representative of a larger group. In addition, few have explored the potential underlying factors, such as the role of self-esteem and peer connectedness.
This study aimed to analyse the impact of social media usage over a longer period and assess whether the association between social media and mental health is explained by self-esteem and peer connectedness. The study used data from the UK Longitudinal Household Survey, a nationally representative study that follows participants over a long period of time. Data from 3,228 young people obtained between 2009−2019 was used, specifically data from the youth self-completion questionnaire given to young people aged 10−15 years (see table below). Multilevel regression analysis looked to understand whether social media use at 12–13 predicted poorer mental health at ages 14–15, while accounting for factors like sex, ethnicity and household income. Mediation analysis explored whether self-esteem or feeling close to peers could explain the relationship between social media and mental health.
|What was measured?
|Social media use
Two questions: ‘do you belong to a social website’ and ‘how many hours do you spend chatting or interacting with friends on social website on a normal school day’
Eight questions, including questions such as: ‘I feel I have a number of good qualities’ and ‘I don’t have much to be proud of’
Two questions: number of friends and happiness with friends.
Validated questionnaire: the strengths and difficulties questionnaire that measures the severity and the content of psychosocial problems
The research found that spending more time on social media did not lead to more mental health problems − more time on social media at age 12−13 was not associated with mental health problems at age 14−15 years, after controlling for demographic and other variables. Self-esteem or peer connectedness also did not significantly explain the relationship between social media use and mental health, after controlling for demographic and other variables. However, self-esteem (but not peer-connectedness) was found to be a significant factor between social media use and mental health when demographic and other variables were not accounted for. Any effects of social media use on young people’s mental health may in part be explained by the impact social media can have on their self-esteem, but this needs further research.
Ruth Plackett, SPHR researcher based at UCL and first author on the study says:
“The study’s findings are consistent with other longitudinal studies that have found little evidence of a longitudinal relationship between time spent on social media and adolescent life satisfaction and wellbeing.
However, the complexities of measuring social media use present a major challenge to understanding this relationship in longitudinal data, combined with the fast-pace at which social media is evolving. We have yet to fully understand how the activities we do on social media affect mental health and who might be most affected by social media and why.”
The findings of this study have implications for how clinicians, parents, caregivers, policymakers, and young people approach this issue. Mental health interventions or prevention strategies that address only time spent on social media may have no benefit for young people’s mental health and ignore the benefits of social media. Further research is needed to explore how different types of social media use affects specific mental health outcomes and who is most affected and why. This will ultimately help inform and develop more tailored strategies and interventions to improve young people’s mental health.