Summary: Contrary to popular belief, a six-year study reveals that increased use of social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok does not lead to higher rates of anxiety and depression among young people.
Following 800 children from age 10 to 16, the study found that symptoms of mental health issues remained stable irrespective of social media habits. The research suggests that while some vulnerable groups may still be affected negatively, social media also offers positive aspects like social support.
The study aims to bring a nuanced understanding to the hotly debated issue.
- The Trondheim Early Secure Study followed 800 children over six years and found no strong correlation between increased use of social media and heightened symptoms of anxiety or depression.
- Previous research from the same group indicates that about 5% of young people in Norway experience depression, and one in ten meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder between ages 4 and 14.
- Social media can serve as a platform for social support and community, potentially safeguarding against loneliness, particularly for young people with fewer friends.
Many children and young adults spend a lot of time on social media, much to the concern of their parents and guardians. Researchers at NTNU have now taken a closer look at the impact of using social media such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok on young people’s mental health.
“The prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased in young people, as has the use of social media. Many people consequently believe there has to be a correlation,” says Silje Steinsbekk, a professor in NTNU’s Department of Psychology.
But Steinsbekk’s recent article, “Social media behaviours and symptoms of anxiety and depression. A four-wave cohort study from age 10–16 years” published in Computers in Human Behavior suggests otherwise.
Trondheim Early Secure Study
Researchers with the Trondheim Early Secure Study project followed 800 children in Trondheim over six years to look for correlations between the use of social media and the development of symptoms of mental illness.
“We have collected data every other year, from the year in which the children were ten years old until they turned 16. This enabled us to follow the children during the transition from childhood to adolescence. Symptoms of anxiety and depression were identified through diagnostic interviews with both the children and their parents,” Steinsbekk explains.
The outcome of the study was the same for both boys and girls. And the results were the same regardless of whether the children published posts and pictures via their own social media pages or whether they liked and commented on posts published by others.
Increased use of social media did not lead to more symptoms of anxiety and depression. Nor was it the case that those who developed more symptoms of anxiety and depression over time changed their social media habits.
Norwegian researchers find weak correlations
A number of studies have been conducted in recent years looking at the correlation between the use of social media on the part of children and young people and their mental health.
Some studies have found that the use of social media promotes mental health, while others find that it has a negative impact. But the majority of the correlations are weak, Steinsbekk said.
“Mental health is often broadly defined in the studies and covers everything from self-esteem to depression. Data is often collected using questionnaires. It is unclear what has actually been measured and the focus has often been on frequency, meaning how much time young people have spent on social media.”
“By following the same individuals over a number of years, recording symptoms of mental illness through in-depth interviews and examining various types of social media use, our study has enabled us to take a more detailed look and provide a more nuanced picture of the correlations,” Steinsbekk said.
Previous studies conducted by the same research group show that around five percent of young people in Norway experience depression. The prevalence is lower in children.
One in ten children meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder at least once during the period between the ages of four and 14 years.
“Young people’s use of social media is a topic that often creates strong emotions in people. There is a lot of concern among both parents and professionals,” Steinsbekk said.”
“We are hoping to contribute more knowledge about how social media affects young people’s development and ability to function in society. Who is particularly vulnerable? Who benefits from social media? Does the way in which social media is used matter?” she said.
Social support and less loneliness
Steinsbekk and her colleagues previously found that girls who like and comment on other people’s posts on social media develop a poorer body image over time, but this was not the case for boys. Posting to their own social media accounts had no impact on self-esteem, regardless of the child’s gender.
Over the coming years, researchers will also examine how different experiences on social media, such as cyberbullying and posting nude pictures, affect young people’s development and ability to function in society.
“Our study finds that if Kari or Knut increasingly like and post on Instagram or Snapchat, they are no more likely to develop symptoms of anxiety and depression. But that doesn’t mean that they are not having negative experiences on social media, or feeling addicted or excluded. Some youths may be particularly vulnerable, and those are the individuals we need to identify,” Steinsbekk says.
At the same time, Steinsbekk also notes that social media has positive aspects, too.
“Social media provides a venue for community and belonging, making it easy to stay in touch with friends and family. Social media can be a platform for social support and help protect against loneliness for young people with few friends,” she said.
Trondheim Early Secure Study
The project investigates the psychological and social development of children and young people. The aim of the study is to be able to answer questions such as:
- What causes some young people to have mental health problems?
- Why do children do well at school, while others fall behind?
- How does the use of social media affect the lives of children and young people and does it matter how much they play games?
- What is it like for individuals who are bullied, lonely or have psychological problems?
- What role do friends and parents play in the development and mental health of children and young people?
- What contributes to helping young people develop good lifestyle habits (sleep, physical activity and eating behavior)?
The Trondheim Early Secure Study has collected data from thousands of children and their parents every year since the subjects were four years of age. The study participants are now 20 years old and the ninth data collection round will take place this autumn.
About this neurodevelopment, social media, and depression research news
Original Research: Open access.
“Social media behaviors and symptoms of anxiety and depression. A four-wave cohort study from age 10–16 years” by Silje Steinsbekk et al. Computers in Human Behavior
Social media behaviors and symptoms of anxiety and depression. A four-wave cohort study from age 10–16 years
Concerns have been raised that social media use causes mental health problems in adolescents, but findings are mixed, and effects are typically small. The present inquiry is the first to measure diagnostically-defined symptoms of depression and anxiety, examining whether changes in social media behavior predict changes in levels of symptoms from age 10 to 16, and vice versa. We differentiate between activity related to one’s own vs. others’ social media content or pages (i.e., self-oriented: posting updates, photos vs other-oriented: liking, commenting).
A birth-cohort of Norwegian children was interviewed about their social media at ages 10, 12, 14 and 16 years (n = 810). Symptoms of depression, social anxiety and generalized anxiety were captured by psychiatric interviews and data was analyzed using Random Intercept Cross-lagged Panel Modeling.
Within-person changes in self- and other oriented social media behavior were unrelated to within-person changes in symptoms of depression or anxiety two years later, and vice versa. This null finding was evident across all timepoints and for both sexes. Conclusions: The frequency of posting, liking, and commenting is unrelated to future symptoms of depression and anxiety. This is true also when gold standard measures of depression and anxiety are applied.