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Youth Social Networking and Mental Health

by ​Kristina Bradley & Andrea Librado

Facebook. Twitter. Snapchat. Instagram. Sites like these are increasingly woven into the social lives of a large majority of today’s youth. The rapid increase in social networking use has raised a number of questions including, how does the use of these networking sites impact youth mental health and vice versa?

Researchers in Ottawa sought to better understand this. They asked middle and high school students to share how many hours a day they use social networking sites, how they rate their emotional or mental health (e.g. poor, fair, good, very good, excellent), and whether in the past year they had wanted to talk to someone about psychological or emotional problems they had in the past year, but didn’t know where to turn.

The results were telling.

Overall, the study found a relationship between poorer mental health and greater use of social network sites.

Specifically:

  • Girls and high school students report more use of social networking sites than boys and middle school students.
  • Students who reported they wanted to talk to someone about mental or emotional problems but didn’t know where to turn were more likely to report using social networking sites for more than 2 hours a day, compared to those who didn’t have that experience.
  • Using social networking sites for more than 2 hours a day was also associated with:
    • Fair or poor self-rating of mental health
    • High level of psychological distress
    • Suicidal ideation.

So what implications do these findings have?

This study suggests that:

  • Parents (and those working closely with youth) should consider frequent use of social networking sites a possible indicator of, or risk for, mental health problems.
  • It’s possible that youth with mental health problems may be using social networking sites as a way to seek interaction or support.
  • Parents/guardians need to be aware of some of the pitfalls of social networking and actively engage youth in making it a better, safer experience for them.
  • Health care providers should consider using social networking sites as a means of providing information, support, and engaging with youth.
  • Youth who spend more than 2 hours per day on social networking sites are less likely to engage in other health-promoting activities.

The relationship between social networking sites and mental health is complex, and it isn’t clear if poor mental health leads to increased use of social networking sites or vice versa (more research is needed to examine directionality). However, the trend of poor mental health and increased social networking site use is enough to indicate that parents and adults working with youth ought to be aware of the pitfalls of social networking sites and engage with youth in using it in a safe, enjoyable manner.

Reference: Frequent Use of Social Networking Sites Is Associated with Poor Psychological Functioning Among Children and Adolescents. Sampasa-Kanyinga H, Lewis RF., Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2015 Jul.