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expert reaction to study on social media use and sleep in adolescents

Research, published in BMJ Open, reports that heavier social media use amongst adolescents can lead to poorer sleep patterns.


Dr Victoria Goodyear, Senior Lecturer in Pedagogy of Sport, Physical Activity and Health, University of Birmingham, said:

“The press release accurately describes the research.

“This is good quality research – the paper provides robust evidence, from a nationally representative sample of current adolescent social media use, and maps associations with sleep. The conclusions are backed up by solid data from a large cohort study that shows patterns between social media use and sleep.

“This research extends existing evidence by examining social media use specifically rather than screen time. In turn, the study has established a typical profile of social media use for UK adolescents, and this is a novel contribution of the research.

“The authors have accounted for confounders, as the study controlled for factors other than social media influencing sleep (e.g. wellbeing measures). Furthermore, the study has established the importance of controlling for gender.

“There are limitations of the study, that have been acknowledged by the authors in the paper. The study provides an important first step toward establishing patterns between social media use and sleep, and these associations were provided by data from a large cohort study. The findings lay the foundation for future studies to examine in more detail the content, context, timing and emotional engagement factors influencing the potential for social media to displace sleep.

“A key implication from this study is that delayed onset of sleep is a critical issue to be addressed in relation to adolescents and their overall health and wellbeing, and this is an important issue for adults who have a responsibility for adolescents to be aware of. The study also provides further evidence on the need to be aware of gender differences in relation to social media use, and the design of interventions and/or forms of support.

“There is no evidence of over speculation.”


Dr Bob Patton, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, University of Surrey, said:

“This is a useful piece of the puzzle in the ongoing exploration of the links between adolescents use of social media and sleep patterns. It’s well known that poor sleep quality (falling as asleep later, limited sleep duration, disrupted sleep and difficulty falling asleep again once awake) is associated with a number of physical and psychological wellbeing issues. In this large cross-sectional study, researchers asked questions about sleep and social media use to just under 1200 adolescents aged 13-15 years. This study is important, as this is the first time that researchers have tried to determine the average amount of time that young people spend of these sites (it turns out in the UK that this was between one and three hours / day) and then to compare that sleep patterns to those who spend much more time on social media. They found that those who logged in for five or more hours a day were twice as likely to report sleep problems as those who spent between one and three hours on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on a daily basis.

“To make sure that other factors were not influencing the results, the researchers considered the impact of things like age, sex, psychological & physical well-being and family situation. Even after all these were taken into account, there was still a significant difference in the quality of sleep between average and high level usage of social media. The researchers state that this evidence supports suggestions that young people should be helped to balance their online interactions with other activities so as to promote health sleep behaviours. They key message here is not that social media usage in itself should be demonised, but rather that high volume users are encouraged to reduce their consumption to what we now know are typical levels, i.e. three hours or less a day.

“The researchers acknowledge the limitations of their work, in particular that as this was a cross-sectional study, it can only provide evidence of an association between social media usage and sleep quality – they are not able to determine that one causes the other, only that the two are linked in some way. Future research that looks at the relationship between these two things over time, will be able to assess causality. They also note that the measures that they used to assess sleep and social media use are not validated measures – this means that while they were confident that they measuring what they thought they were measuring, there is a chance that they were not accurate. The fact that the measures are all self-completed also allows for an element of bias as this relies on accurate recall, which in a population of those who may not have had a good night’s sleep could be a little open to interpretation.”


Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: 

“This study supports other recent evidence that heavy social media use is associated with poor sleep, particularly in teenage girls. However, it is unable to confirm causation as we also know that depressed young people may increasingly turn to social media late into the night.

“Lack of sleep can be hugely damaging, and is often related to poor mental health and academic achievement. It is important that when discussing sleep and mental health problems, front line professionals ask their young patients about their online lives, including their use of social media.

“Children and young people should also avoid using screens in the last hour before bed as this will help them sleep better at night.”


‘Social media use and adolescent sleep patterns: cross-sectional findings from the UK millennium cohort study’ by Holly Scott et al. was published in BMJ Open at 23:30 UK time on Tuesday 22nd October. 

DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-031161


Declared interests

Dr Victoria Goodyear: No declarations of interest.

Dr Bob Patton: No conflicts of interest declared.

None others received

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