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No likes for impact of social media on children’s mental health

Posted on 10 December 2018 by Katharine Sadler, Research Director .
Tags: social media

Young people with a mental disorder are spending more time on social media and are more likely to compare themselves with others.

These are only some of the compelling findings from NHS Digital’s long-awaited Mental Health of Children and Young People report, the first nationally representative study looking at young people’s social media usage and the impact it has on their mood, self-worth and self-esteem.

It’s fairly standard for parents to be concerned about their children’s social media use, whether that is the amount of time spent on various platforms or the nature of their activity, and it is common knowledge that the vast majority of youngsters have a social media profile.

However, until now the effects of social media were not fully understood given the short existence of this subject in social research fields. This has now changed. The report, based on data gathered by us at the National Centre for Social Research and the Office for National Statistics, clearly shows that young people with a mental disorder are much more likely to be spending time online than those without one. Nearly one in three (29 per cent) of young people with a mental disorder are on social media for at least four hours on a typical school day compared with one in six (17 per cent) without a disorder.

This association was true for boys and girls and across age groups. More than half (53 per cent) of young people with a disorder are also spending this long on social media at the weekends (compared to 29 per cent without a disorder).

Our findings did not only reveal significant differences in the hours spent, but also highlighted that having a disorder influenced the way that young people engaged with social media. Overall, one in six (17 per cent) reported that the number of likes, comments or shares that they got affected their mood, but young people with a disorder were twice as likely as those without a disorder to feel this way (28 per cent compared with 14 per cent).

Girls with a disorder were particularly more likely to compare themselves to others online, while both boys and girls with a disorder were more likely to spend longer than they intended on social media, and to feel that they couldn’t be honest online.

Our research showed a strong link between mental disorders and cyberbullying, a worrying fact given its steady increase in recent years. We found that 21 per cent of young people reported being cyberbullied in the past year, with girls more likely than boys to be cyberbullied: one in four girls experience this (26 per cent) compared with one in six boys (17 per cent). The cyberbullying rate doubled to 42 per cent in those with a mental disorder compared with 18 per cent for those without.

And it’s not only those that are cyberbullied that we need to worry about; we also found that the cyberbullies themselves have a high level of mental health need — young people with a mental disorder are twice as likely to report cyberbullying others as young people without a disorder (15 per cent compared with 7 per cent).

So what does this mean for parents? As a mum of two young children, the link between social media and children’s mental health is naturally of personal interest. However, the researcher in me knows that caution is always advised when interpreting findings.

Given our extensive research on mental health at the National Centre for Social Research, we know first-hand what a complex, multifaceted area it is. Studies looking into the relationship with social media use and its impact are in their relative infancy.

It’s a topic of hot political and public debate and is an area that the Commons health and social care committee has previously expressed concerns about, calling for detailed consideration about the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. This issue was further echoed in the ministerial report Future in Mind, and we hope that the official statistics published in this report will help fuel further research and inform the shape of future policies to protect and enhance young people’s mental health.

This blog post originally appeared on The Times.

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