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expert reaction to study looking at social media and adolescent mental health

Research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, reports a link between time spent on social media and risk of mental health problems in adolescents.


Dr Rina Dutta, Senior Clinical Lecturer, King’s College London (KCL) & Consultant Psychiatrist, said:

“The researchers have used data collected about almost 7,000 US adolescents to find out if time spent using social media is associated with mental health problems in young people. It is a timely research project, with realistic conclusions based on solid data collection from a nationally representative group of adolescents in USA. 

“A major strength of this study compared to previous research is that the researchers took into account mental health problems the young people already had a year prior to the measurement of social media use. This largely overcomes the ‘what came first – mental health problem or high social media use?’ question. 

“The group also showed a relationship between how much social media was being used and its overall relationship with adolescent mental health when checked a year later.  More social media use was linked to poorer self-reported mental health symptoms.  The self-reported nature of ‘probable’ mental health disorder is important to bear in mind, as not all these adolescents had come to the attention of mental health services, nor would they need mental health care.

“One of the main drawbacks stems from the fact that the study was not set up to answer this question about social media. The researchers therefore only had only one ‘broad brush’ question about typical daily use to analyse. We all know from personal experience that our social media use can vary a lot each day and it may not be self-reported ‘average’ use that is most relevant. Other features, like when social media use happens (is it during the day or late at night) and on what platforms, might be much more important and were simply not studied here.

“The young people also had to choose from answers of none, up to 30 minutes, more than 30 minutes, up to 3 hours, more than 3 hours, up to 6 hours and more than 6 hours.  This means the punchline of the paper being based on 3 hours is only because that was the cut off the researchers used.  Other studies have concluded that less than two hours screen time is better for thinking and overall well-being in young people.  Live passive collection of time spent on social media will be more accurate and improve conclusions that can be drawn in studies in the future.  Other researchers have also emphasised the importance of uninterrupted sleep and daily moderate to vigorous physical activity which sets social media use in context. 

“The authors have not overspeculated however and acknowledge the simplicity of how they measured social media use and how it does not show what the nature of the usage was.  They think this might explain why there was no difference in the relationship between social media and mental health symptoms for males compared to females. The researchers are also responsible in the way they report their results about the proportion of adolescents with mental health symptoms that could be attributed to overuse of social media among the entire population.  They say this is based on two huge assumptions: that social media use is definitely causing the problems and that there are no alternative explanations.  They have not based a headline finding on these proportions, explaining instead that trial data is needed. Social media use is also rapidly changing over time. Although the researchers mention 2018 Pew poll data that said 95% of US adolescents had access to a smartphone, the data on social media were collected from October 2014-15 and even then, social media use was not quite so widespread.”


Associations Between Time Spent Using Social Media and Internalizing and Externalizing Problems Among US Youth’ by Riehm et al. was published in JAMA Psychiatry at 16:00 UK time on Wednesday 11 September. 

DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.2325


Declared interests

Dr Rina Dutta: “I have received funding from MRC/MRF to conduct a study of smartphone use, social media and self-harm among young people.”

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