Social media damages children’s mental health by ruining sleep, reducing their exercise levels and exposing them to cyberbullies in their homes, the first major study has shown.
Parents and health experts have long-suspected that spending hours on sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is having a negative impact on youngsters, raising levels of anxiety and depression.
Now a major study of nearly 10,000 teenagers by University College London (UCL) and Imperial College London, has found that using sites multiple times a day increases the risk of psychological distress by around 40 per cent, compared to logging on weekly or less.
For girls, the harmful effect was driven primarily by online bullying, and also preventing them engaging in protective activities like sleeping well and exercising. The researchers said they were less sure why boys were affected.
Study leader Professor Russell Viner, of UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said parents should keep screens out bedrooms to avoid disrupting sleep and encourage their children to get enough exercise and spend time with friends in person.
“Young people’s use of social media and smartphones is an ongoing concern for today’s parents,” he said. “We found no convincing evidence that social media is harmful in and of itself.
“In girls, the harmful impact of social media on mental health and wellbeing was almost entirely accounted for by cyberbullying, inadequate sleep and inadequate physical activity.
“The same picture was partially seen in boys, although more research is needed to explore the gender differences.”
In England, more than 90 per cent of teenagers use the internet for social networking and the study is the first with enough participants to make it representative of the whole of the country. It is also the first to follow social media use and mental health over time.
Researchers monitored youngsters aged 13-16 years between the years 2013-2015. Very frequent social media use was defined as using networks, instant messaging or photo-sharing services three or more times daily.
In the second year of the study, participants were also quizzed about their levels of psychological distress and asked about sleep and exercise habits, and if they had been cyberbullied.
In the final year, the teenagers were asked about their life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety.
In 2014, 28 per cent of very female frequent social media users reported psychological distress on the general health questionnaire, compared with 20 per cent of those using it weekly or less. In boys, it rose from 10 per cent to nearly 15 per cent.
Very frequent social media use across 2013 and 2014 predicted later lower wellbeing in girls, with girls who persistently used social media very frequently reporting lower life satisfaction and happiness and greater anxiety in 2015.
The authors found that almost all of the effect on girls’ wellbeing in 2015 was down to cyberbullying, reduced sleep of less than eight hours a night and reduced physical activity exercising less than once a week.
Co-author, Dr Dasha Nicholls, of Imperial College London, said: “The clear sex differences we discovered could simply be attributed to girls accessing social media more frequently than boys, or to the fact that girls had higher levels of anxiety to begin with.
“Cyberbullying may be more prevalent among girls, or it may be more closely associated with stress in girls than in boys.
“However, as other reports have also found clear sex differences, the results of our study make it all the more important to undertake further detailed studies of the mechanisms of social media effects by gender.”
The research was published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.