How does social media impact UK Adolescents' Mental Health?

03 Apr 2023

Mental illness is a growing concern globally. In 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 1 in 7 adolescents will experience a mental disorder. The increasing prevalence of adolescent mental disorders in the last 20 years has caused many countries to make this a public health priority, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The reasons for the increase in mental disorders among young people are complex and influenced by many factors. Social media can be considered particularly influential, when one considers that approximately 97% of adolescents use at least one social media platform.

Cross-sectional studies have found a relationship between social media use and depression and anxiety in young people. However, few longitudinal studies using representative data and mediation analysis have been conducted to understand the causal pathways of this relationship. A recent study led by Dr Ruth Plackett (UCL) sought to fill this gap, by focusing on the longitudinal relationship between social media use and young people’s mental health. Dr Plackett’s work is funded by NIHR Three Research Schools’ Mental Health programme and supported by ARC North Thames.

The paper, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, investigated the relationship between social media use and mental health problems in adolescents aged 12-15 years old in the UK. The findings indicated that spending more time on social media did not lead to mental health problems. In fact, the relationship between social media use and mental health problems was largely explained by other factors:

  • baseline mental health;
  • the year the adolescent took part in the study; and
  • ethnicity.

Dr Plackett says: “The study's findings are consistent with other longitudinal studies that have found little evidence of a relationship between social media use and adolescent life satisfaction and wellbeing.

However, the complexities of measuring social media use present a major challenge to understanding this relationship in longitudinal data. This study highlights the importance of longitudinal research in understanding these relationships.

Our findings have implications for how clinicians, parents, caregivers, policymakers, and young people approach this issue. Mental health interventions or prevention strategies that address only time spent on social media may have no benefit for young people’s mental health and ignore the benefits of social media.”

Read the study here.

Find out more about Ruth’s research project at ARC North Thames here.

Dr Plackett will present her work in the forthcoming National ARC Mental Health webinar series.  Launching on Wed 17 May 2023, this cross-ARC series of three webinars titled: 'Mental health and our modern world', explores mental health in the context of some of the most topical themes of our times. Dr Plackett will be speaking in the third and final webinar of the series on 'Young people's mental health' Wednesday 12 July 2023 1pm-2pm. You can book your tickets here.

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