Brain and Body

24/7 Social Media Fostering Anxiety Among Teens

November 5, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Graffiti on a brick wall. "Like Me!" Close up of an eye
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The pressure to be online at all times is leading to poorer sleep quality, which can cause a number of health problems.

It’s no shock that social media use among adolescents can lead to some unhealthy trends — cyber bullying has been an issue at the top of the list for years. New research has shown that social media also breeds a number of other health problems, including increased risk of anxiety and depression.

The research, presented at a British Psychological Society conference in Manchester, highlighted that teens don’t just avidly use their social media accounts, they actually feel a need to be constantly available and respond to comments, messages, and texts 24/7. This leads to reduced sleep quality which can affect self-esteem, anxiety levels, and depression.

SEE ALSO: Do you panic without your phone? You might have nomophobia

The researchers, Dr. Heather Cleland Woods and Holly Scott of the University of Glasgow, analyzed the social media habits of 467 teenagers by providing questionnaires about overall and night-time social media use. Then, a further set of tests calculated sleep quality, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem. The researchers also measured the teens’ emotional investment in social media — in other words, their attachment to different social media outlets, the pressure they felt to be online 24/7, and how much anxiety they felt if they didn’t immediately respond to messages or posts.

The analysis found that, among the study participants, using social media at any time of day was significantly related to lower self-esteem, reduced sleep quality, and increased levels of anxiety and depression. Dr. Woods did clarify, however, that, “those who log on at night appear to be particularly affected.”

In a press release, Dr. Woods explained that evidence increasingly supports the notion that social media use affects overall wellbeing, particularly during adolescence. She also said that poor sleep quality may contribute to the onset of depression and anxiety among teens, and that adolescence is a vulnerable time for these disorders as is.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center also linked teens with constant social media use, revealing that 92 percent of teens report going online daily, including 24 percent who admit to being online “almost constantly.” Studies on this growing sphere of social media produce consistent results:  engagement and emotional investment in social media correlates with problems with sleep, self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.

However, this link between the two raises the chicken-and-the-egg problem. Which came first — the constant social media use or the problems with self-esteem, anxiety, and depression? Not all teen social media use is bad. In fact, teens often offer each other support through social media, and a lot of the interaction is positive. But another study on smartphones and depression found that smartphone use can actually perpetuate the cycle of depression, worsening symptoms by discouraging face-to-face human interaction.

Basically, the psychological effects of social media use on adolescents can swing either way: it could certainly be the cause of a number of problems like low self-esteem and anxiety, but these feelings could have preceded the unhealthy social media use, and teens could be overusing it as a coping mechanism. More research must be done to dig deeper into the roots of the issue, but this study has certainly shown a strong correlation between the two.

Woods advises that the best remedy is to unplug at the end of the day. In an interview with Live Science, she suggested that families use a “digital sunset” to get a break from technology and social media. “Turn off the devices and blue light, stop checking emails and social media, and allow yourself time to finish your day,” she said. “Sleep is important, so put your phone away.”

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