Girls more prone to depressive symptoms linked to social media use, researchers warn

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Girls are twice as likely to show signs of depressive symptoms linked to social media use compared to boys at age 14.

Research from University College London is the first of its kind to look at associations between social media and depressive symptoms and analysed data from nearly 11,000 young people from the Millennium Cohort Study.

Participants in the study completed information on their social media use, online harassment, sleep patterns, self-esteem and body image – all of which are potentially linked to having depressive symptoms.

They also completed a Moods and Feelings Questionnaire, which asked them about their experiences in the previous two weeks.

The study found that 14-year-old girls were heavier users of social media, with two fifths of them using it for more than three hours per day compared with one fifth of boys.

The findings also showed that 12 per cent of light social media users and 38 per cent of heavy social media users (five or more hours a day) showed signs of having more severe (clinically relevant) depression.

Furthermore, 40 per cent of girls and 25 per cent of boys had experience of online harassment or cyber-bullying and 40 per cent of girls compared to 28 per cent of boys said their sleep was often disrupted.

Co-author of the research study, Professor Yvonne Kelly, from the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “The link between social media use and depressive symptoms was stronger for girls compared with boys. For girls, greater daily hours of social media use corresponded to a stepwise increase in depressive symptoms.

“For boys, higher depressive symptom scores were seen among those reporting three or more hours of daily social media use.”

Researchers found the most important routes from social media use to depressive symptoms were shown to be via poor sleep and online harassment. Social media use was proportionately related to less sleep, taking more time to fall asleep and more disruptions during sleep. In turn, depressive symptom scores were higher for girls and boys experiencing poor sleep.

Prof Kelly added: “These findings are highly relevant to current policy development on guidelines for the safe use of social media and calls on industry to more tightly regulate hours of social media use for young people.

“Clinical, educational and family settings are all potential points of contact where young people could be encouraged and supported to reflect not only on their social media use, but also other aspects of their lives including online experiences and their sleep patterns.”

The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the paper was published last week in EClinicalMedicine.

  • Social media use and adolescent mental health: Findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, Kelly, Zilanawala, Booker & Sacker, EClinicalMedicine, January 2019:


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