Teen girls at higher risk of social media-linked depression, study says

Researchers and parents have long wondered about a possible link between social media and risk of depression among teens.

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Now new findings published in the journal The Lancet last week suggest social media use may indeed be associated with young people's mental health — and the connection looks stronger for girls than boys.

United Kingdom researchers examined data on 10,904 14-year-olds born between 2000 and 2002 in the U.K. for the study, using a variety of regression and path models to find associations between social media use and depressive symptoms.

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The data is part of the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study, which includes participant self-reported questionnaires.

On average, research showed that girls had higher depressive symptom scores compared with boys and girls reported more social media use as well.

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In fact, according to the study, teen girls who spent more than five hours on social media per day had a 50 percent increase in depressive symptoms and boys experienced a 35 percent increase in symptoms compared to those who used social media for only one to three hours per day.

"We were quite surprised when we saw the figures and we saw those raw percentages: the fact that the magnitude of association was so much larger for girls than for boys," study author Yvonne Kelly of the University College London told CNN. This could be because girls are more likely to spend time on apps centered around "physical appearance, taking photographs and commenting on those photographs," she said, and urged future researchers to delve deeper into the gender differences.

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But overall, the more social media use, the more likely the teens are to have mental health problems, the study found.

“We looked at four potential explanations simultaneously, and this is the first paper to do that,” Kelly said. “We looked at sleeping habits; experiences online, so cyberbullying; how they thought about their bodies, or their body image, and whether they were happy with how they looked; and their self-esteem. All of those four things − the sleep, the cyberharassment, the body image or happiness with appearance, and the self-esteem − they are all linked with the risk of having depression.”

Of all the factors cited above, cyberbullying and sleep seemed to play the most significant role in the onset of depressive symptoms.

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Still, researchers note that their findings revealed only an association between social media use and symptoms of depression and can’t conclude that social media use causes depression or depression leads to increased social media use.

One in six adults will have depression at some time in their life, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression, and it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Explore the full study at sciencedirect.com.

Getting help

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends the following tips for getting help:

  • Call 911, go to your local emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 if you're feeling suicidal.
  • If you think your condition is mild to moderate, make an appointment with your primary care physician.
  • If you think your condition is moderate to severe, make an appointment with a specialized doctor such as a psychiatrist.
  • Seek out community support groups, which can serve as valuable tools for help and to know you're not alone in suffering from depression. NAMI can help you find support in your area.