Parents and pediatricians have been wringing their hands over a growing body of research that suggests social media is a bad influence on teen mental health. But a new study suggests that the true culprit may actually be the lifestyle habits related to checking an Insta or Twitter feed obsessively.
Interviews with almost 10,000 teens ages 13 to 16 published this week in the medical journal the Lancet suggest it’s the exposure to cyberbullying that’s the real issue, as well as the way social networking wreaks havoc on sleep and exercise habits.
Teen girls are particularly vulnerable to this toxic mix, because they are cyberbullied three times more than teen boys. And the researchers noted that the psychological distress from the cyberbullying is compounded when the girls are sleep-deprived from staring at their screens instead of going right to sleep at bedtime. (A 2018 study of more than 3,000 adolescents found that smart devices and screen time led to insomnia, poor sleep quality and depressive symptoms.) Less sleep and more screen time also interferes with getting exercise, which would provide an emotional health boost (and also help them sleep better).
The share of teenagers who use social media has jumped from 34% in 2012 to 70% in 2018, according to Common Sense Media , which estimates that teens spend nine hours a day on their screens. And some of the heaviest social-media users told CNN in 2015 that they checked their Instagram, Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +1.52% , Snapchat /zigman2/quotes/205087158/composite SNAP +0.68% and Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.87% feeds more than 100 times a day.
In fact, one teen has gone viral for appearing to go to desperate lengths to get on Twitter after her mother took away all of her devices. (She reportedly had started a kitchen fire while distracted by her phone.)
Twitter user (and apparent Ariana Grande fan) @thankunext327, who goes by the name Dorothy, sent a couple of tweets using her Nintendo DS /zigman2/quotes/201616881/delayed NTDOY +0.29% handheld videogame device and the Wii U gaming console. But after her mother found out and took those away, too, she says she sent a tweet through her family’s LG Smart Refrigerator: “I am talking to my fridge what the heck my Mom confiscated all of my electronics again.”
It’s picked up almost 72,000 likes as of press time alongside more than 17,000 retweets, and spurred the hashtag #FreeDorothy. Even LG’s /zigman2/quotes/209966407/delayed KR:066570 -0.36% official Twitter account lent support to the #FreeDorothy movement:
In all seriousness, researchers have confessed concern about how people of all ages are spending so much time on our devices that it’s impacting our sleep, our physical and mental health, and even our relationships.
And teenage girls appear to be especially vulnerable. Along with being cyberbullied three times more than teen boys are, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than one in five (21%) middle- and high-school girls say they have been bulled online.
Perhaps that’s because girls were more prone than boys to spending significant lengths of time on social media, according to a 2018 U.K. report , which found that half of 13-year-old girls spent more than an hour on these sites every day, compared with one-third of boys their age. By 15, both genders had upped their social-media use, but girls continued to use the sites and apps more heavily than boys.
Other studies have found correlations between increased screen time and increased unhappiness; Eighth-graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who spend less time online.
But in a linked comment to the Lancet study, Dr. Ann DeSmet from Belgium’s Ghent University cautioned that social-media use isn’t all negative. “If the displacement of healthy lifestyles and cyberbullying can be attenuated, the positive effects of social-media use, such as encouraging social interactions, can be more endorsed,” she wrote.