The Grapevine

Children Using Social Media Unhappier As Adolescents, Girls More So Than Boys

Reports continue to emerge on how social media can impact everything from sleep to self-image, so it comes as no surprise that the impact is particularly negative on the youth. But a new study asks whether gender is also a determinant in the long-term effects of social media.

The study titled "Gender differences in the associations between age trends of social media interaction and well-being among 10-15 year olds in the UK" was published in the journal BMC Public Health on March 20. Researchers from the University of Essex and University College London conducted the study and found social media use at age 10 could go on to harm female adolescents more than their male counterparts. The effects may even extend into adulthood, the study said.

"Our findings suggest that it is important to monitor early interactions with social media, particularly in girls, as this could have an impact on wellbeing later in adolescence and perhaps throughout adulthood," said corresponding author Dr. Cara Booker, Research Fellow and Deputy Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Essex.

Booker and her colleagues examined data from a UK survey that collected information on 9,859 adolescents from 2009 to 2015. Participants, aged 10 to 15 years, reported on the number of hours they spent on social media on a typical school day as well as their level of happiness with aspects of their life such as family and school. They also filled out a strengths and difficulties questionnaire which is used to detect emotional and behavioral problems.

While social media interaction increased with age for both boys and girls, the latter group was a more prominent user. By the age of 13, almost 50% of the girls spent more than an hour a day on social media compared to 32% of the boys. By the age of 15, figures rose to 59% for girls and 46% for boys. Wellbeing declined through adolescence for both groups as per self-reported data from the questionnaires. Happiness scores dropped almost three points (from 36.9 to 33.3) in girls and two points (from 36.02 to 34.55) in boys.

As for the reason behind the stark difference, the study suggests that female adolescents might be more likely to engage in upward social comparison, which is the tendency to compare yourself to those who are better than you. The main limitation of the study was that the figures may be vastly underestimated since the data only measured social media use on school days and not weekends. The authors shed light on the rising sedentary behavior due to technology, also acknowledging it is too early to understand the long-term effects on mental health.

"We hope this will be useful evidence for policymakers looking at whether time spent on social media is having an impact on health. There have also been calls for the technology industry to look at in-built time limits. Our study really backs this up — the amount of increasing time online is strongly associated with a decline in wellbeing in the young, especially for girls," said Dr. Booker, encouraging limits on the number of hours spent on social media.