Taking time out to scroll free

As the Royal Society for Public Health launches its #ScrollFreeSeptember campaign, encouraging people to take a break from social media, Professor Yvonne Kelly from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL, discusses new research on the negative impacts of social media use on young people’s health. She explains how the findings point to the need to limit the time that young people, especially girls, spend on social media.

The ScrollFreeSeptember campaign accompanies the launch of a second parliamentary inquiry in less than 12 months into the impact of social media use on young people’s mental health and well-being. Our Centre will be submitting a range of important new findings to that inquiry which seeks to grow the evidence base in an area where there is a great deal of hot debate, but where little is really known and understood.

For our team of researchers, the first indication that all was not well in the world of social media and young people’s mental health came in 2015 when we found that children who were heavy users of screen-based media were less happy and had more social and emotional problems than their peers who used it moderately. Children who used social media sites for chatting were also less likely to be happy and more likely to have problems than their peers who did not.

In March this year, our widely covered work on the trends for boys’ and girls’ social media use added weight to recent calls from the Children’s Commissioner for England to, as she put it, call time on a “life of likes”. In her report, Anne Longfield argued that there was clear evidence of children finding it hard to manage the impact of online life. She said children as young as eight were becoming anxious about their identity as they craved social media likes and comments for validation.

Social media and girls

Our research, based on the experiences of 10,000 children aged 10-15 who took part in the Understanding Society study, showed that this seemed to be the case particularly for girls who used social media for more than an hour a day. 10 year-old girls in the study who spent an hour or more on a school day chatting online had considerably more social and emotional problems later on – by age 15 – than girls of the same age who spent less or no time on social media. The number of problems they faced also increased as they got older, which was not the case for boys.

It was interesting to note that more girls than boys were using social media and for greater periods of time. At age 15, 43 percent of girls and 31 per cent of boys were using it for between one and three hours per day, with 16 and 10 per cent using it for more than four hours.

We think this tells us something important about the different ways that girls and boys interact with social media. For example, girls may be more likely than boys to compare their lives with those of friends and peers – whether those are ‘filtered’ selfies or positive posts about friendships, relationships or material possessions – these could lead to feelings of inadequacy, lower levels of satisfaction and poorer wellbeing.

The pressures associated with having peers like or ‘approve’ status updates and a perceived fall in or lack of popularity could add further pressure at, what for many teenagers is a tricky time in their lives.

Boys are more likely to be gaming than interacting online in the way just described and that wasn’t covered in this research, so it’s possible that for boys, changes in well-being may be more related to gaming success or skill.

But one of the key takeaways of this research is how social media use as a very young person is linked to lower levels of happiness later on – the effects are not short term – they have longer term consequences and

Social media and depression

More recently, we have turned our attention to the social media experiences of the children in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), using information on 11,000 14 year-olds to look at how social media use is linked with depression. We’ve also been asking ourselves what the pathways between these two things might look like, something that’s not really been done before. So, for example, are heavier users of social media getting too little sleep or having trouble getting to sleep because they are checking accounts at bedtime; are they experiencing cyberbullying either as victims or perpetrators; do they appear to have low self-esteem or a negative view of how they look? All these questions can help us better understand what’s at play and come up with better approaches to tackling these problems.

Preliminary findings reinforce the message that girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media. Once again we see more girls than boys in this study using social media and for longer periods of time.

Does using social media affect literacy?

A follow up piece of research looks at whether there are links between the amount of time young people spend on social media and their levels of literacy. Findings suggest a link and that this is the same for boys and girls.

In this research we look at whether the more time young people spend on social media, the less time they have for the things that might improve their literacy such as reading for enjoyment and doing homework.

There are some clear messages from our research so far:

  1. Heavy users of social media are less happy and have more problems at school and at home – interventions to help them limit and manage their social media use better are likely to be important
  2. Girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media and may be an important group to focus on among those looking to mitigate thse effects
  3. More hours spent on social media appear to impact negatively on young people’s wellbeing and could have knock on effects for their longer term prospects at school and work

Social media companies have been accused by the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt among others of turning a blind eye to the problem and the chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies has been asked to recommend healthy limits for screen time.

Our research indicates that it may indeed be time for recommended healthy and safe limits of social media use, that a focus on girls, especially initiatives to boost their mental health could help mitigate some of the negative effects.

The RSPH is hoping that going scroll free this September might give us all a chance to get our social media use a little more balanced, to think about the benefits to be enjoyed and the negatives to be avoided.

As well as pausing to think about our social media use and how it affects us, it will be an opportunity to examine the facts of the matter, a time to digest new, solid evidence that these large scale studies can help us with and consider the potential longer term costs and consequences of doing nothing.

The forthcoming inquiry hopes to inform “progressive and practical solutions”, including a proposed industry Code of Practice and tools for educators, parents and young people themselves to help them enjoy the benefits and eliminate the negative effects of their social media. We wholly support those efforts and hope they result in positive changes that will make campaigns like ScrollFreeSeptember unnecessary in the future.