Does social media make teens anxious and depressed? A new study debunks a common belief

·Senior Editor
Adolescent girls hanging out on their phones. Does too much time on social media cause depression? Maybe not. (Photo: Getty Images)
Adolescent social media usage tends to worry parents, but the findings of a new eight-year study could be surprising — in a good way. (Photo: Getty Images)

Does excessive social media usage lead to depression and anxiety? While some research has found a link, a new, robust study on the topic has revealed somewhat surprising results: that the amount of time teens spend on social media appears to have no connection to such mental health issues.

“To my knowledge, it’s the longest study ever on social media and mental health,” lead author Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, tells Yahoo Lifestyle about the research, which followed adolescents over a period of eight years. The findings were published earlier this month in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

“We spent eight years trying to really understand the relationship between time spent on social media and depression for developing teenagers,” Coyne said in a BYU press release. “If they increased their social media time, would it make them more depressed? Also, if they decreased their social media time, were they less depressed? The answer is no. We found that time spent on social media was not what was impacting anxiety or depression.”

Existing research on the topic, Coyne notes in the study’s abstract, is mostly an observation of data, and “lacks analytic techniques examining individual change over time.” In this new study, however, the same 500 participants completed annual surveys, about both time spent on social media and the state of their mental health, during the ages of 13 to 20 — “really important time periods in terms of mental health and development,” Coyne says.

“Results revealed that increased time spent on social media was not associated with increased mental health issues across development when examined at the individual level,” the study notes. “Hopefully these results can move the field of research beyond its past focus on screen time.”

Coyne, a mother of five, stresses that the findings should not be taken as a green light for adolescents to enjoy limitless time on Instagram, Snapchat or other popular platforms. “One of my biggest fears about the study,” she says, is that it somehow gets misinterpreted, paving the way for “unfettered access to social media for, say, my 11-year-old.”

Instead, the researcher is hoping her findings “move us beyond screen time,” because aiming to “just get kids off phones is not going to help all that much.”

The amount of time teens spend on social media has risen 62.5 percent since 2012 and continues to grow, the study points out. In 2018, the average time teenagers spent on social media was estimated at 2.6 hours per day.

What Coyne found in her research was that, at age 13, adolescents reported an average social media use of 31 to 60 minutes daily, with duration increasing steadily so that by young adulthood, use had climbed upwards of two hours a day.

Based on these realities, Coyne hopes to educate kids about wise social media use, and “empower parents with real tools they can use to help regulate the habits.”

While this new study looked strictly at time spent on social media in relation to mental health struggles, Coyne’s past research has examined other healthy or unhealthy aspects of the ways in which social media is used, prompting her to offer three suggestions on how to use social media more positively:

  • Be an active, rather than passive, user: Instead of just scrolling, actively comment, post and like the content of other users.

  • Stop using social media at least an hour before bedtime, as “that hour right before bedtime tends to be really problematic in terms of disrupting sleep,” Coyne notes, and getting enough sleep is “one of the most protective factors for mental health.”

  • Be intentional in your use of social media and examine your motivations. For example, “If you’re just using it because you’re bored, that tends to bring more negative outcomes,” she says. “If you get on specifically to seek out information or to connect with others, that can have a more positive effect than getting on just because you’re bored.”

Finally, Coyne tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “Social media is not going away anytime soon, [so] the conversations we are having in our society are just not realistic… a fear based, end-of-the-world type of approach. The average teen is of course on social media, so we need to teach them to be thoughtful and mindful about it.”

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