UK scientists have found a significant link between adolescents who check their social media accounts more than three times a day and feelings of psychological distress.
However, they now believe this negative reaction is not directly a result of social media use.
Researchers from Imperial College London said mental health issues among teenagers could be due to cyberbullying, and that social media use could be displacing other activities, such as sleep and exercise.
The study, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal, analysed data on almost 10,000 school children from the Our Futures government study as they progressed from age 13 to 16 during 2013-16.
The researchers found that 43 per cent of girls and boys used social media more than three times a day in the first year, rising to 69 per cent in the third.
The findings showed that those who checked social media at this frequency in the first year were 31 per cent more likely to experience psychological distress the following year.
Persistent frequent social media use in the first two years of the study led to lower wellbeing in the third year for girls but not boys.
However, the study’s authors suggest that social media itself is unlikely to be directly harmful – rather it is due to the content consumed or displacement of physical activity.
When they accounted for factors such as cyberbullying, sleep and physical activity, the association with poor mental health all but disappeared in girls.
This was not the case for boys, suggesting other mediating factors, which have not yet been identified, were responsible.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said he believes it would be “biologically implausible” for social media to negatively affect one gender and not another.
“The causal arrow isn’t from social media, we believe, to distress, it actually comes through these other things that are enabled by social media,” Professor Viner said.
“It’s about the content and the displacement, not about the platform or the use of social media.”
One solution proposed by study’s authors is for parents to insist their children leave their phones downstairs when they go to bed to ensure their sleep is not disrupted.
They also suggested parents should monitor who their child is speaking to online in the same way that they would be aware of who their friends are in the playground.
Dr Dasha Nicholls, co-author of the study, said: “Rather than endlessly saying, ‘Can you get off your phone? Can you get off your phone?’ what it’s saying is you need to leave your phone downstairs when you go to bed, you need to make sure that you go out and get some exercise and then you can play on your whatever it is.”
Dr Nicholls added that parents need to know what they can do to protect their child from cyberbullying, saying: “In cyberbullying, even your bed is not a safe place, and if your phone is downstairs, you can’t be bullied in your bed.”
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