A new study from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) suggests that even though kids are spending a lot of time on social media, and cases of depression among youth are on the rise, there is no clear evidence of a connection between the two.
“The prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased. As has the use of social media. Many people therefore believe that there has to be a correlation,” said NTNU Professor Silje Steinsbekk.
In the Trondheim Early Secure Study research project, experts followed 800 children over a six-year period to look for correlations between the use of social media and the development of mental illness symptoms.
“We have collected data every other year, from the year in which the children were ten years old until they turned 16 years of age,” said Steinsbekk.
“This enabled us to follow the children during the transition from childhood to adolescence. Symptoms of anxiety and depression have been identified through diagnostic interviews with both the children and their parents.”
The experts determined that ncreased use of social media did not lead to more symptoms of anxiety and depression. On the flip side, those who developed more symptoms of anxiety and depression had not changed their social media habits over time.
The results of the study were the same regardless of gender, and also regardless of whether the children published their own social media pages or simply liked and commented on other people’s posts.
In recent years, many studies have examined the potential connection between children’s mental health and their use of social media. The results are mixed.
While some experts found that the use of social media promotes mental health, others found evidence that it has a negative impact. However, the majority of these correlations are weak, said Steinsbekk.
“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, i.e. how much time young people have spent on social media,” explained Steinsbekk.
“By following the same subjects 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.”
In previous work, the same research group determined that around five percent of young people in Norway experience depression, and the prevalence is lower in children.
According to the researchers, 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, and there is a lot of concern among both parents and professionals,” said Steinsbekk.
“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?”
Steinsbekk and her colleagues previously found that girls who like and comment on other people’s posts 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, for boys or girls.
“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,” said Steinsbekk.
“But that does not mean that they are not having negative experiences on social media, or feeling addicted or excluded. Some may be particularly vulnerable and those are the ones we need to identify.”
“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,” said Steinsbekk.
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 subjects are now 20 years old and the ninth data collection round will take place this fall.
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