Study Explores the Complexities of Social Media’s Influence on Teen Depression

There are many ways researchers and mental health experts dissect the impact social media has on mental health. It has been heavily linked to depression in teens, especially teenage girls, but a new study has uncovered some insights that the issue may be more complex than we have yet to understand. 

Research recently published in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health included conducting interviews with nearly 10,000 children between the ages of 13 and 16 in England, finding that the common emotional effects of cyberbullying go a little deeper than just hurting feelings and reshaping teens’ self-image. While those circumstances alone draw a logical line toward depression and anxiety, researchers actually feel that their interruption of physical health activities like quality sleep and exercise that turns up the effects on depression symptoms. So social media itself isn’t what they believe to be the trigger so much as it takes away from the time teenagers would otherwise give to things known to lessen depression symptoms. 

"Our results suggest that social media itself doesn't cause harm, but that frequent use may disrupt activities that have a positive impact on mental health such as sleeping and exercising, while increasing exposure of young people to harmful content, particularly the negative experience of cyber-bullying," study co-author Russell Viner of the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health said in a statement.

What this does is it reshapes the way experts may approach treating social media-induced depression symptoms in teens. Simply cutting down on a teen’s time on their smartphone is just one piece of the puzzle. 

"Building strategies to increase resilience to cyberbullying and that promote better sleep and exercise behaviors may well be what is needed to reduce both physical and psychological harms," Patton, who was not involved in the research, said in a statement.

An interesting point within the findings, however, is that this impact was more significant in teenage girls than it was in teenage boys. Why the difference? Researchers found that more frequent social media use is in fact linked to greater psychological distress in both sexes, but for young girls, 60 percent of the impact on psychological distress was accounted for by lower sleep quality and greater exposure to cyberbullying. Meanwhile, those same factors only accounted for 12 percent of the impact on young boys who frequently used social media. “Very frequent” was defined as anybody who checked or used social media, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter and Snapchat more than three times a day, and the results unsurprisingly supported the idea that more frequent social media use is aligned with greater social distress. Between 2013 and 2015, researchers interviewed the nearly 10,000 youths about their psychological distress and their personal well-being, things like life satisfaction, happiness, and anxiety, with teens self-reporting how often they checked in on any of the given websites throughout the day. 

Of course, these findings aren’t exactly surprising. Not only is it a universal conversation amongst everyday people, but it’s also not the first bit of research to support the fact that frequent social media use can connect to depressive symptoms in teens. In fact, research has even found that our own frequent social media use, or at least our obsession with smartphones, can trigger depression in our pets because they recognize we are giving them less attention and care as a result. And earlier this summer, researchers in Canada concluded in another study that the type of content teens consume through frequent social media use heavily influences their depressive symptoms — an important distinction, they believe. 

"If the displacement of healthy lifestyles and cyberbullying can be attenuated, the positive effects of social media use, such as encouraging social interactions, can be more endorsed," she said in a statement.

Now, if you’re wondering how exactly social media use may be affecting the sleep patterns of teenage girls, the answer may actually be quite simple and it has nothing to do with tossing and turning from psychological distress. A study done by researchers at Michigan State University found that staring at our smartphones and computer screens in the evening hours kills our productivity in the following day. 

“Night mode!” You may suggest? 

A Lighting Research Center study at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute reviewed the results of young adults who viewed iPads between 11 pm and 11 am under experimental conditions. Some of them used night shift while others viewed the screens at regular display settings. Subjects who used iPads without night shift had their melatonin levels decreased by 23% — nearly a quarter of your natural levels. Those who used night mode and reduced the screen’s brightness had their melatonin reduced by 12%. So yeah, night mode helps, but even just a 12% drop in melatonin levels can be a sleep disruptor that kills productivity the next day.

“Smartphones are almost perfectly designed to disrupt sleep,” said Russell Johnson, MSU assistant professor of management. “Because they keep us mentally engaged late into the evening, they make it hard to detach from work so we can relax and fall asleep.”

For his first study at MSU, Johnson and fellow researchers studied 82 different upper-level managers complete surveys over a two-week period. The second study reviewed the habits of twice as many people across a variety of occupations. In both studies, the surveys found that smartphone use specifically had a larger negative impact on the quality of sleep and next-day productivity than the television or even laptops. 

Smartphones are designed specifically to emit what’s known as ‘blue light’ so you can see them even in the middle of a bright day. We don’t look at our television screens outside or even our laptops without some kind of shade usually. So smartphones are unique in that they actually emit the most disruptive type of light possible. The brain stops producing melatonin and then it is officially harder to both fall asleep and even stay asleep through the night. According to Tech Insider, the disruption of sleep can impair your memory the next day as well as make it harder to learn and retain new information the next day. Once that cycle starts, blue light can even impact hormones that control hunger. 

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