Is Excessive Social Media Use Causing Mental Health Problems in Adolescents?

Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media are susceptible to developing mental health problems, particularly internalized problems like depression and anxiety, according to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

In a longitudinal cohort study, researchers assessed a total of 6,595 participants from waves 1 and 3 of the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health study. Participants were between the ages of 12-15 during Wave 1, which took place between September 12, 2013 and December 14, 2014, and wave 3 took place between October 18, 2015 and October 23, 2016. This study was a national representative study of adolescents, in which researchers conducted at-home audio interviews of adolescents.

The study exposures were self-reported time spent on social media throughout an average day (no time spent, less than 30 minutes, between 30 minutes and 3 hours, 3 to 6 hours, or more than 6 hours) during wave 2. The key endpoint was self-reported occurrences of experiencing problems alone in the past-year, as well as comorbid internalizing and externalizing problems during wave 3, which was measured utilizing the Global Appraisal of Individual Needs-Short Screener.

Should Limits Be Set?

According to the results of the study, spending more than 30 minutes of time on social media, compared with no use, was associated with increased risk of internalizing problems alone (≤30 minutes: relative risk ratio [RRR], 1.30; 95% CI, 0.94-1.78; >30 minutes to ≤3 hours: RRR, 1.89; 95% CI, 1.36to 2.64; >3 to ≤6 hours: RRR, 2.47; 95% CI, 1.74 to 3.49; >6 hours: RRR, 2.83; 95% CI, 1.88 to 4.26) and comorbid internalizing and externalizing problems (≤30 minutes: RRR, 1.39; 95% CI, 1.06 to 1.82; >30 minutes to ≤3 hours: RRR, 2.34; 95% CI, 1.83-3.00; >3 to ≤6 hours: RRR, 3.15; 95% CI, 2.43-4.09; >6 hours: RRR, 4.29; 95% CI, 3.22-5.73); associations with externalizing problems were inconsistent.

Moreover, the results revealed a significant correlation between social media use for more than 3 hours per day with internalizing problems alone (>3 to ≤6 hours: RRR, 1.60; 95% CI, 1.11-2.31; >6 hours: RRR, 1.78; 95% CI, 1.15-2.77) and comorbid internalizing and externalizing problems (>3 to ≤6 hours: RRR, 2.01; 95% CI, 1.51-2.66; >6 hours: RRR, 2.44; 95% CI, 1.73-3.43) but not externalizing problems alone.

The study researchers wrote that “future research should determine whether setting limits on daily social media use, increasing media literacy, and redesigning social media platforms are effective means of reducing the burden of mental health problems in this population.”