Studies have shown over and over again that social media isn’t good for mental health, and some of the people who make social media have warned about how some features can be addicting. Now, a new study adds to the growing body of evidence about how it affects mental health by finding a link between using social media as a child and having worse mental health as a teenager. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that it affects girls more than boys.
The University of Essex researchers looked at information from nearly 10,000 families in the U.K. from 2009 to 2015. At the first point in the study, the kids were 10 years old, and at the last point, they were up to 15 years old. Two reliable surveys were used to measure their mental health. These surveys asked about their happiness and well-being in different parts of their lives (school, family, etc.) as well as their social and emotional problems.
Girls used social media more than boys, and it seemed to hurt their mental health. At age 10, 10% of girls and 7% of boys spent an hour a day on social media. But the difference got bigger at age 15: 43% of girls used it at least an hour a day, while only 31% of boys did. At age 10, girls were less happy than boys, and as they got older, they had more social and emotional problems than boys.
Even though there isn’t a direct link here, it seems likely that there is a link based on other research. Late last year, Jean Twenge did a study that found teens who spend more than a few hours a day on social media have a higher risk of depression than those who spend less time on social media. Even here, the link was stronger between girls than between boys. In recent years, depression and thoughts of suicide have been on the rise among young people. The CDC has been keeping track of this, and some researchers are sure that social media is to blame.
The people who wrote the new study think that one reason for the link may be how girls use social media. Girls may be more likely to compare themselves to others. Previous research has shown that comparisons, whether positive or negative, seem to be at the heart of social media’s negative effects.
In this study, boys’ levels of unhappiness also went up over time, but not as much as girls’. The authors think this could be because boys are online for different reasons than girls, like gaming (which may also have an effect on mental health, but in different ways). There are some things wrong with the study: It didn’t look at why kids use social media or how their personalities might affect that.
And it’s important to note that some social media use seems to be fine. The problem seems to be when people spend hours a day on social media. “Of course, young people need the internet to do their homework, watch TV, and stay in touch with their friends,” Cara Booker, the author of the study, wrote in The Conversation. “But they probably don’t need to chat, share, and compare on social media for two, three, or four hours every school day.
If you have kids, try to get them involved in real activities that help them make real-life friends and keep them involved. And if you worry about how much you use, try using less. Studies and anecdotal evidence have shown that quitting social media makes people happier in the long run, even though it can be stressful at first.