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Depressive symptoms linked to social media use are higher among girls

BMJ 2019; 364 doi: (Published 04 January 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l73
  1. Harriet Pike
  1. Cambridge, UK

Evidence linking social media use and depressive symptoms has emerged from a study of 14 year olds, with the connection being stronger for girls than boys.

The study, published in EClinicalMedicine, showed that, among teenage girls, greater use of social media corresponded with a stepwise increase in depressive symptoms.1 For boys, higher depressive symptoms were seen among those reporting three or more hours of daily social media use.

Online bullying and poor sleep were linked with greater use of social media and were responsible for the low mood seen among both sexes, the researchers concluded.

The study looked at associations between social media use and depressive symptoms and analysed data from nearly 11 000 young people from the Millennium Cohort Study, a major research project into children’s lives. Participants self reported social media use, online harassment, sleep patterns, self esteem, and body image, and completed a Moods and Feelings questionnaire.

The researchers, from University College London, found that 14 year old girls were heavier users of social media than boys, with two fifths of them using it for more than three hours a day compared with one fifth of boys (43.1% v 21.9%). On average, girls had higher depressive symptom scores compared with boys (geometric mean score 4.6 v 2.5).

The researchers examined multiple pathways connecting social media use and depression and found that the most important routes were poor sleep and online harassment. More girls than boys (38.7% v 25.1%) reported being involved in online harassment or cyberbullying as a victim or perpetrator, and more girls said their sleep was often disrupted (40.3% compared with 27.6% of boys). The researchers found no evidence to suggest differences for girls and boys in the types of pathways at play.

“These findings are highly relevant to current policy development on guidelines for the safe use of social media and calls on industry to regulate more tightly hours of social media use for young people,” said lead researcher Yvonne Kelly, a professor of epidemiology at UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care.

“At home, families may want to reflect on when and where it’s okay to be on social media and agree limits for time spent online. Curfews for use and the overnight removal of mobile devices from bedrooms might also be something to consider.”

Stephen Scott, director of the national academy for parenting research at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at King’s College London, said: “Inevitably there is the chicken and egg question, as to whether more dissatisfied children, who to begin with are less pleased with their body shape and have fewer friends, then spend more time on social media. Nonetheless, it is likely that excessive use of social media does lead to poorer confidence and mental health.”

Andrew Przybylski, associate professor and director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, highlighted some of the limitations of the study. “First and foremost, the data are entirely based on self reporting,” he said, which means that data might lack accuracy. He also questioned some of the researchers’ conclusions given that the correlations between social media use and indicators of low psychological wellbeing were indirect. “Given social media is by far the least important factor in the central model; why not look at sleep, self esteem, harassment, and body image directly,” he asked.

The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


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