Social media is often accused of damaging children’s mental health – but a new study suggests it is not to blame.
Instead, bullying, lack of sleep and problems with friendships are more important factors, with no strong link between social media use and psychological problems.
And in fact, social media use may even be linked to a greater sense of well-being among older teenagers, according to researchers.
The findings are contained in the U.K. government’s first ever State of the Nation report into children’s mental well-being, launched to mark World Mental Health Day today.
The study identifies a deterioration in children’s feelings of well-being, with an increase in the number of children aged 10-15 and young people aged 16-24 reporting being relatively unhappy over the last decade.
Children aged 13-15 consistently report lower feelings of well-being than those aged 10-12, while girls are more likely to report feeling relatively unhappy than boys.
Social media has taken much of the blame for the tide of unhappiness, with accusations it is disconnecting children from their friends, replacing face-to-face contact and facilitating both low self-esteem and cyberbullying.
But the researchers found that social media use was not a significant factor in worsening child mental health.
“Social media was not strongly linked to psychological health, when accounting for the range of other factors we examined,” the researchers concluded.
Although they found that 14-15-year-olds who used social media throughout the day had marginally worse mental health than those who used it less frequently, the size of the effect was small.
‘Social media use had one of the smallest effects of all the factors we examined: getting enough sleep and seeing friends were about three times larger,’ they concluded.
The effect of bullying on psychological health was about eight times larger than that of social media, they said.
Although social media use may expose children to cyber-bullying, and help deprive them of sleep, once those were accounted for, “the unique, direct association of social media with girls’ psychological health is relatively small,” the researchers said.
Any negative impact of social media was likely to be through cyber-bullying, or displacing protective factors such as seeing friends, sleep and physical activity, they added.
This backs up previous reports, including a study released by the U.K.’s chief medical officers earlier this year, which found that there was little causal evidence for an association between screen time and well-being.
On the contrary, today’s report found that social media use was actually linked to higher levels of well-being among older teenagers, although the size of the association was small.
Although the study found an increase in the number of children reporting feeling relatively unhappy with their lives, the majority said they were relatively happy: 84.9% of 10-15-year-olds and 82.9% of 16-24-year-olds.
Well-being declined as children got older, and girls were slightly more likely to report lower feelings of well-being than boys.
Children reported feeling happiest with their family, friends and health, followed by their school and appearance.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock, launching the report, said: “Looking after our mental health must start at a young age – and our children should feel valued, supported and listened to.
“It is encouraging that this report finds the majority of our young people are happy, but our mental health is an asset – just like our physical health, so it is vital children get the support they need.”