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Using social media 3 or more times a day may compromise teenage girls' health, study finds

The findings published are part of a major study of over 10,000 13-16 year olds in England.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: Shutterstock/fizkes

TEENAGE GIRLS MAY have their mental health compromised by the “very frequent use” of social media, according to new study of over 10,000 13-16-year-olds in England.

Published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, the study’s findings suggest that while social media itself doesn’t cause harm, the frequent use of it can increase a teenager’s exposure to bullying and reduce their time spent sleeping and exercising.

However, while both boys and girls reported greater psychological distress from using social media very frequently, the study was unable to pinpoint the reasons why it affected boys in particular.

Teenagers from nearly 1,000 schools in England were analysed as they progressed through the first years of secondary school.

In 2013, 43% of boys and 51% of girls used social media multiple times a day. By 2015, this had risen to 69% of boys and 75% of girls using social media multiple times a day. 

The study defined “very frequent use” as using sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and Whatsapp three or more times a day. 

In the second year of the study, participants were asked about their experiences of cyber bullying, sleep and physical activity. In the final year, they were asked to rate their life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety. 

When the authors made a link between a teenager’s social media use and their psychological distress and wellbeing, they assessed to what extent it could be attributed to cyberbullying, how much sleep they were getting and the amount of exercise they were getting. 

For girls, the more often they checked social media, the greater their psychological distress. For example, 28% of the girls who very frequently used social media reported psychological distress compared to 20% of girls who used social media weekly or less. 

Similarly, girls who reported using social media very frequently in the first two years of the study reported lower life satisfaction, lower levels of happiness and greater anxiety in the final year.

The authors were able to attribute almost all of this as being down to cyber-bullying, reduced sleep and reduced physical exercise.

This was different for boys, however, with the researchers unable to pinpoint what was causing greater psychological distress in boys who used social media frequently. 

Study co-author Dr Dasha Nicholls 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.

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Sean Murray

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