Parents have long been worried about the impact social media might have on children’s mental health, but new research has suggested it is the side effects of social media use, such as lack of sleep, that could present more of a problem.
The findings come from the first major study to analyse how heavy social media use could potentially damage mental health.
The study, published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, indicates that while frequent use of social media does appear to be linked to having a negative impact on mental health, the effects are not direct.
Instead researchers suggest it could be down to social media users forgoing other activities, such as sleep and exercise, or that it opens the door to cyberbullying.
For the study, by University College London and Imperial College London, researchers analysed data on more than 10,000 English youngsters age 13-16.
The data was collected from a series of surveys on how often teenagers used social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat and mental health was assessed through a questionnaire.
The results revealed that almost a fifth (19%) of teens had high scores for psychological distress, with such problems more common in girls than boys.
For both boys and girls, having a high score for psychological distress was more likely among those who checked social media more than three times a day, compared with just once a day.
But researchers say the mental impact is not directly as a result of using social media but due to the associated effects, such as lack of sleep and physical exercise.
Commenting on the findings Prof Russell Viner, a co-author of the study, from the UCL Great Ormond Street institute of child health, told the Guardian: “While we obsess a lot about social media, how much do we obsess about how much our young people sleep? Not very much – but it is a more important factor, actually, in determining their mental health.”
The team say parents should focus less on how much time teenagers are spending on social media and instead ensure their children are getting the right amount of sleep a night (eight to ten hours) and encouraging them to exercise.
One suggestion is for parents to remove phones and tablets from their children’s bedrooms.
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, and to ask questions about whether anything negative has happened online and make sure that parents do what they can do to protect from cyber-bullying."
The team do note that there were some limitations to the study, in that it is based on self-reported results. Also, ‘very frequent use’ of social media was considered to be more than three times a day, whereas many people access social media far more frequently.
As a result further research into the effects of social media is needed.
How much sleep do teenagers need?
The importance of sleep for teenagers has been making headlines recently with MPs debating calls for the school day to start at 10am to help tired teenagers earlier this year.
The NHS says that a minimum of 8 to 9 hours’ good sleep on school nights is recommended for teens.
“Good quality sleep is essential to maintaining good mental and physical health at all ages”, says Tobin James, Tempur UK Managing Director, “but children and adolescents need a lot of sleep. At every stage, right up to our twenties, our bodies and minds are developing and growing, and it’s periods of sleep that allow that development to happen.
“Just as with adults, the amount of sleep children and young people need varies. But what is very clear is that kids need more sleep than adults and their sleep patterns and needs change continually.
“Sleep is one of the variables we can often control to help protect our mental health and manage stress.”
The study results come as it was revealed back in June that parents were warned they could be damaging toddlers’ mental health by allowing them to access social media from the age of two.
A new report from charity Barnado’s has raised concerns about potential exposure to inappropriate content and also how use of social media may affect the communication skills of young children.
The charity is now urging the Government to commission detailed research into the potential links between social media and mental ill health and hopes there will be increased investment in education about social media for both children and parents.