Social media use and young people’s mental health: ‘chicken and egg’ – or something else?

The connections between social media and young people’s mental health are very much in the news. Professor Liz Twigg from the University of Portsmouth discusses some questions about this phenomenon and introduces her new research into the area.

There are mounting concerns about young people’s increasing use of social media and the effects this has on their everyday sense of wellbeing and happiness.

The effects of cyberbullying, fear of missing out and the desire to sustain on-line approval for physical appearance and expression of opinion may all heighten levels of stress and anxiety.

Children’s charities such as the NSPCC’s ChildLine have reported increases in the use of their counselling services and very recent news has alerted us to the fact that nearly a fifth of 14 year-old girls are ‘self-harming’. Both the Care Quality Commission and The Children’s Society have reported on this issue.

Chicken or egg?

Research on the topic is growing and some evidence points to a direct association between the time spent on social media and mental wellbeing, such Kross et al and  Beardsmore.  However very few studies test the direction of causation.

Much work assumes poor mental health arises from high levels of social media use.  But could there be an element of reverse causation occurring here – i.e the familiar chicken and egg conundrum?

Do young people who experience lower self-esteem or who are vulnerable to stress and anxiety spend more time communicating and seeking support from virtual friends?

For some young people, such support might improve their sense of belonging or acceptance. It might also help them to build resilience.

Other conundrums?

Many other complex factors influence a young person’s mental wellbeing, including the quality and quantity of support they receive from parents, guardians and other close family members, as researched by Oberle et al .

Things which improve the chances of young people thriving and experiencing good mental health include:

  • help with schoolwork
  • having opportunities to discuss problems
  • having someone on hand to provide adequate levels of emotional support

A parent or guardian’s ability to provide such support is constrained by his or her own (mental) health status as researched by Manning and Gregoire.

When their mental wellbeing is compromised the ability to deliver adequate support and nurturing may disintegrate or disappear altogether. Caring responsibilities and the stigma associated with having a parent or guardian who is mentally unwell can add to a young person’s worries.

A kind or supportive word from online friends and specialist support networks may provide the lifeline needed to get a teenager through his or her personal difficulties.

Finally, both adult and young people’s mental health are also strongly associated with socio-economic and material deprivation at both household and neighbourhood level, as examined in The Marmot Review: Fair Society, Healthy Lives.

For some young people in particularly disadvantaged neighbourhood, household or personal settings, reaching out to a virtual support network for advice and/or sympathy might prove an attractive option and help develop resilience.


The way forward

Revealing the complex relationship between social media use, poor mental health, family relationships, and household and neighbourhood poverty poses many challenges.

One of the most fundamental relates to research data.  Complex, longitudinal information is required on all of the above and this is where the data resources found in Understanding Society – the UK Household Longitudinal Survey (UKHLS) – prove to be extremely useful.

The survey reports on the mental health status of young people and other household members and asks a whole set of questions about family dynamics and the everyday activities of young people, including the amount of time they spend on social media.

Information is also available on household income and financial strain.  Data linkage can be used to find out more about the socio-economic standing of local neighbourhoods.  Crucially, the panel nature of the survey allows for a more robust investigation of cause and effect within this complex web of relationships.

Academics from the University of Portsmouth’s Geography Department (Professor Liz Twigg and Dr Craig Duncan)  and from the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research (SCHARR – Professor Scott Weich) are about to begin an empirical project to tease out the subtle and complex relationship between social media use and young people’s mental health.

The work, supported via an MQ Data Science award, will help them determine the circumstances where social media use may be damaging for young people and if there are circumstances where social media interaction helps build resilience for vulnerable youth.

Data from Understanding Society is available from the UK Data Service.

About the author

Liz Twigg is a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Portsmouth. Her main research interests focus on the influence of place and space on health, health behaviour and well-being.

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