More than two hours of use per day can spell trouble
Most members of Generation Z can't imagine life without Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. Nearly one in four teens reports being online "almost constantly," with much of that online time dominated by social media.
But the effect of social networking on teens' mental health has been largely unclear, since so little research has been conducted on the matter. A new study warns, however, that frequent social media use may indeed take a toll on a young person's psychological well-being.
The research comes from Ottawa Public Health, the city of Ottawa's agency for health information, programs and services. The study finds that teens who use social media sites for two hours or more per day are significantly more likely to suffer from poor mental health, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts.
To conduct the study, the researchers analyzed data from 750 students in grades seven through 12, collected for the 2013 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey. The students were asked to answer questions about their social media habits, mental health and psychological well-being, and mental health support. Of those students, 25 percent said that they spent at least two hours a day on social networking sites like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
The researchers found that these heavy social media users were more likely to report having poor mental health, psychological distress (symptoms of anxiety and depression), suicidal thoughts and unmet mental health needs.
While the study doesn't prove causality, it's likely that the direction of influence runs both ways. Teens who are struggling with their mental health may be more likely to use social media frequently, while excessive use of social media use may over time contribute to poor mental health.
"It could be that teens with mental health problems are seeking out interactions as they are feeling isolated and alone," Dr. Hugues Sampasa-Kanyinga, the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "Or they would like to satisfy unmet needs for face-to-face mental health support."
The findings are in line with a 2012 study that found a correlation between social networking and depression in high school students. However, the association isn't necessarily straightforward.
"The relationship between the use of social networking sites and mental health problems is complex," Sampasa-Kanyinga said. "Simple use of social networking sites cannot fully explain by itself the occurrence of mental health problems."
Turning the problem into the solution
The solution? It's probably not to get kids off social media. Instead, the way forward may be getting more mental health resources onto these platforms.
"We see social networking sites, which may be a problem for some, also being a solution," Dr. Brenda K. Wiederhold of the Interactive Media Institute in San Diego said in a statement reacting to the study's findings. "Since teens are on the sites, it is the perfect place for public health and service providers to reach out and connect with this vulnerable population and provide health promotion systems and supports."
The Ottawa Public Health researchers also suggest that parents should be aware of excessive social media use as a possible indicator of mental health issues.
The findings were published online on July 13 in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.