Heavy social media use affects girls’ mental health differently than boys

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All those hours teens spend on Instagram or Snapchat could mess with their minds differently, depending on their gender, a new study has found.

When girls suffered poor mental health linked to heavy social media use, it seemed to be driven by a combination of being exposed to cyberbullying, missing out on sleep or not getting enough exercise, British researchers reported Tuesday in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Boys weren’t as affected by those factors, suggesting there were “other mechanisms” by which heavy social media use affected their mental health, though the researchers couldn’t yet pinpoint what they were.

“Our results suggest that social media itself doesn’t cause harm, but that frequent use may disrupt activities that have a positive impact on mental health,” said lead author Russell Viner, a professor of adolescent health at the University College London Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, in a statement.

That means social media use among teens “need not be as negative as often assumed,” especially if they can be encouraged to get enough sleep and exercise and learn how to deal with cyberbullying, added Ann DeSmet, a researcher in the department of movement and sports sciences at Ghent University in Belgium, in an accompanying commentary.

“The idea is to promote other positive habits rather than saying to kids, ‘You can’t be on social media as much,’” Jill Emanuele, senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York, told TODAY. She was not involved in the study.

The findings released Tuesday are based on data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England.

Thousands of teens in 886 schools in England were interviewed in 2013 starting at ages 13-14, then again next year at ages 14-15, then once more when they were 15-16 years old. The teens reported their social media use and answered questions about their mental health and wellbeing, plus their sleep habits, exercise frequency and whether they had experienced cyberbullying.

The study defined “very frequent social media use” as using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp three or more times a day, though the data didn’t show how much time the teens actually spent on the platforms.

The more often girls checked social media, the greater their psychological distress, but this effect was not as clear in boys, the study found.

Still, heavy social media use predicted later poor mental health and well-being in both sexes, with exposure to cyberbullying and the disruption of sleep and exercise seemingly responsible for the effect on girls, the study found. In boys, those factors played less of a role, the authors noted.

Emanuele was concerned that the research had inconclusive findings for boys. In her experience, both girls and boys are affected by cyberbullying and inadequate sleep.

“There’s always been this relationship between social media use and cyberbullying. We also see it in boys,” she said. “We see loss of sleep leading to so many different kinds of problems… in terms of being able to think clearly, pay attention, engage in activities properly.”

And while social media has been linked to social isolation and depression, it’s also associated with some “good things,” like increased social communication, Emanuele noted.

Her advice to parents:

  • Everything in moderation, including social media. “We do know that anything in extreme is not good,” she said. “What we’re really trying to understand is: How much is it actually affecting our children?”
  • Kids should be off their screens before they go to bed. That way, they wind down for the day and don’t have their sleep disrupted by their friends’ photos and posts.
  • Find ways to reinforce positive habits, like getting enough sleep and exercise, rather than declaring social media off-limits. “The first reaction parents will have is to say [to kids], ‘You can’t be on social media as much.’ When you tell a kid to not do something, they’re going to do it more.”
  • Encourage kids to track the number of hours they spend on social media: Many don’t actually know and some would probably be surprised.

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