SALT LAKE CITY — Not only do teenage girls use social media more than teenage boys, but the more girls use social media, the more at risk they are for depression, according to a study published this month by researchers at the University of Essex and University College London.
The study, published in peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet, did not attempt to prove that social media causes depression, but showed there is a stronger association between social media and depression for female teens than for males.
In other words, as hours spent on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram goes up, depression increases for girls at a higher rate than boys.
Compared to girls who spent 1-3 hours on social media a day, girls who spent 3-5 hours showed a 26 percent increase in depressive symptoms, whereas the increase for boys was 21 percent. Moving from 3-5 hours a day to more than 5 hours, there was a 50 percent increase in depressive symptoms for girls, compared to just 35 percent for boys.
"Girls are more social but are not getting that social need met in the real world," said Dr. Kim Metcalfe in Oregon, a retired professor of early childhood education and psychology and author of "Let’s Build ExtraOrdinary Youth Together."
The study surveyed more than 10,000 14-year-olds in the United Kingdom and found that 43.1 percent of girls used social media for three or more hours per day, compared to 21.9 percent of boys.
For both boys and girls, more social media use was linked to poorer body image, poorer sleep, online harassment and low self-esteem. While previous studies in the United States, Canada and the U.K. have identified links between social media use and poor mental health, sparking concern among users and the invention of screentime management tools from Apple and others, this study is the first to consider all the above factors.
"Girls arrive to social media with self-esteem issues that are different than what boys deal with," said Metcalfe. "Culturally, we celebrate beauty, and many girls have issues with their bodies and looks. We have a standard of beauty that girls are exposed to in TV commercials, magazines and at school."
Social media exacerbates the pressure girls feel to look a certain way because it provides an endless stream of images for them to compare themselves to, Metcalfe said.
According to the study, girls were more likely to have low self-esteem (12.8 percent vs. 8.9 percent for boys), to have body weight dissatisfaction (78.2 percent vs. 68.3 percent) and to be unhappy with their appearance (15.4 percent vs. 11.8 percent).
Girls were also more likely to be involved in online harassment as a victim or perpetrator (38.7 percent vs. 25.1 percent).
"Girls and boys both bully a lot. But they bully differently," said Metcalfe. Whereas boys are more likely to use physical aggression, girls are more likely to participate in what Metcalfe calls "relational bullying," which involves emotional manipulation.
"Social media is the perfect platform to do that," she said.
Kids born after 1995, also known as Gen Z, are the first to grow up using social media throughout adolescence, according to Metcalfe.
In her opinion, social media is the major reason for rising rates of depressive episodes among teenage girls since 2010, as reported by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The rate of 12-17 year old girls who had at least one major depressive episode in the past year spiked from about 12 percent in 2010 to nearly 20 percent in 2016. On the other hand, the rate for boys remained relatively stable, moving from just under 5 percent to almost 7 percent during the same period.
"It's got to be social media, because we can't find any other differences," she said.
But Jasmine Fardouly, a researcher at Australia’s Macquarie University, said it's possible the causal arrow points the other way.
"It may be that girls engage in more harmful online behaviours because they have poorer mental health," said Fardouly, who has researched connections between social media and body image. One of her studies found Instagram use was associated with greater self-objectification.
Sleep disturbance is another possible reason for depressive symptoms related to social media use.
The U.K. study showed girls were more likely to report getting fewer than seven hours of sleep compared with boys (13.4 percent vs 10.8 percent) and to report experiencing disrupted sleep often (27.6 percent vs 20.2 percent).
The study points out that social media use can impact sleep in a variety of ways. Using social media at night could mean going to bed later, incoming notifications or a fear of missing out at night could cause sleep disruptions and exposure to a bright screen can interfere with the brain's melatonin production and circadian rhythm.
Finally, anxiety caused by online harassment, social comparisons and body image concerns can impact quality of sleep, the study says.
Haylee Bladen, founder of WholeKids Emotional Wellness based in Sandy, Utah, said it's not good for kids to sleep with their phone next to them at night.
Bladen suggested several signs to look for that might indicate social media is interfering with a child's mental health.
"Are they tired? Are they irritable, more than a typical developing teen? Are they unmotivated? Do they talk about people they follow more than they talk about their real friends? Have they developed a sense of entitlement? Do they isolate to their rooms? Are they snappy? Are they eating less or obsessing over their bodies or diet and fitness? Have they stopped trying? Are they engaging in self-harming behaviors?" she said.
Bladen teaches young women to avoid following "influencers" or other people that make them feel bad about themselves. Instead, girls should selectively follow accounts that uplift and encourage them to be their best. She also recommends teens take regular breaks from social media, periodically clean out the people they follow, put their phones away 30 minutes before bedtime, avoid mindless scrolling and focus on real relationships.5 comments on this story
"If parents are worried about this or have this on their minds, my advice is to open up the explore page on you daughter's (or son's) Instagram. You will see what they are exposed to daily, what types of accounts they may be following or looking at," said Bladen.
"There's pornography on Instagram, pro-disordered eating pages, diets they are being sold such as Thinspo, Fitspo, etc.," she said. "The whole world is open to them on social media. All of this needs to be talked about with your kids because they are going to see it, so they need to be prepared."