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expert reaction to study on social media use and the role of cyberbullying, sleep and physical activity in the wellbeing in young people

Research, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, reports on the relationship between wellbeing and social media use, cyberbullying, physical activity, and sleep, in adolescent boys and girls.

This Roundup accompanies an SMC Briefing.


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

“This study furthers the evidence base of the link between mental health and wellbeing among young people and social media use. They have used a longitudinal approach whereby data from the same cohort of adolescents was collected on a number of separate occasions, to demonstrate that frequent use of social media predicts subsequent mental health and psychological wellbeing issues. However, the authors have explored a number of issues associated with frequent use of social media – cyberbullying, sleep quality and exercise – and found that it was exposure to these factors, rather than simply the frequency of social media use, that was associated with mental health and wellbeing issues. The researchers note that these factors were significant predictors of psychological wellbeing among female, but not male respondents, suggesting that other factors which were not explored in the research may be relevant to adolescent boys.

“There are a number of limitations of the research which the authors have acknowledged in their report. In particular the study has used self-report measures which are subject to bias, and the definition of ‘very frequent’ social media use is limited to accessing such sites on four or more occasions per day – it is likely that some young people are accessing this type of content much more frequently than that, and this may have an even stronger effect.

“The researchers point out that it is not the accessing of social media per se that is the issue, but of the consequent effects of cyberbullying, sleep and exercise displacement, that mediate the association with lower wellbeing. As such, strategies that focus on reducing exposure to social media in themselves may not in fact reduce associated harms, and that building strategies to increase resilience to cyberbullying and that promote better sleep and exercise behaviours may well be what is needed to reduce both physical and psychological harms.”


Dr Louise Theodosiou, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ child and adolescent faculty, said:

“We’ve seen a worrying rise in low mood and depression among girls and young women in recent years and this paper helps our understanding of the link between social media use and mental health problems.

“The study represented an effective use of an existing sample which benefits from being a large size from a wide range of education settings. The authors note the limitations of the data set. It’s hard to completely identify children and young people with mental health needs within this group as no measure of psychological distress was used in the first wave and different measures of wellbeing and psychological distress in the second and third.  In addition, one of the measures was initially developed for use in adult populations although has been used effectively in adolescent populations. Also, the duration of social media use is not measured in this survey thus we do not know if someone checked a text or spent an hour scrolling through Facebook. Limitations like these mean that the survey may not be the most accurate representation of social media use and wellbeing in the adolescent population but is the best data we currently have.

“This paper’s key finding – that in girls, reports of cyber bulling, lack of sleep and lack of physical exercise can account for the link between social media use and lower life satisfaction – is revealing; as is the finding that for boys those three factors appear to play much less of a part.

“More studies are needed to understand how we can prevent the more negative impacts of social media, particularly on vulnerable children and young people, and the negative impacts of digital technology generally.

“It is only right that social media companies contribute to fund this important research and do more to support young people to use the internet safely.”


Roles of cyberbullying, sleep, and physical activity in mediating the effects of social media use on mental health and wellbeing among young people in England: a secondary analysis of longitudinal data” by Russell Viner et al. was published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health at 23:30 UK time on Tuesday 13th August. 



Declared interests

Dr Bob Patton: No declarations of interest.

Dr Louise Theodosiou: Dr Theodosiou is involved in developing guidance on technology use and children and young people’s mental health for the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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