A new Canadian study suggests the more time young people spend on social media, the higher their risk of cyberbullying and developing unhealthy eating behaviors.
Researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) said an example of unhealthy eating behavior is the decision to skip breakfast, and consume sugary beverages and highly caffeinated energy drinks. Investigators used data from the Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey (OSDUHS) to come to the conclusions.
The findings stem from work by CAMH scientist Dr. Hayley Hamilton and her collaboration with Ottawa Public Health to explore various risks related to social media use among young people.
The research shows direct associations between increased social media use and the risk of specific unhealthy eating behaviors. In the case of cyberbullying, the research reveals that certain groups, such as students in Grades eight and nine, are particularly vulnerable.
“We’re able to pinpoint emerging risks related to social media — and their public health consequences,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton and co-investigator Dr. Hugues Sampasa-Kanyinga of Ottawa Public Health analyzed data from a sample of 5,000-plus students aged 11 to 20 that was collected as part of the 2013 OSDUHS survey. OSDUHS began in 1997, and is the longest ongoing school survey in Canada.
The researchers examined the relationship between the use of social media and cyberbullying victimization, including threats, harassment, embarrassment, and social exclusion.
Unlike other forms of bullying, cyberbullying’s impact can be pervasive, the study notes. Likewise, it may be harder for parents or teachers to notice — or intervene — when a young person is cyberbullied.
“This research advances our understanding by focusing on time spent on social media, rather than focusing only on type of activities online,” said Hamilton.
Overall, 19 percent of students said they had been cyberbullied in the past year. “We discovered several groups who were more vulnerable to cyberbullying. These included females, younger adolescents, and students who reported using alcohol or tobacco,” said Hamilton.
For example — more than 24 percent of students in Grades eight and nine reported experiencing cyberbullying, versus just over 15 percent for Grade 12 students.
“Younger students may be the perfect target for cyberbullies” because they may engage in behaviors that put themselves at higher risk, said Hamilton. These may include giving away personal information and connecting with strangers through social media, notes the study.
Older students may be more cautious based on experience.
The researchers also found that as the hours spent on social media increased, so did the risk of cyberbullying. For example, of those students using social media more than five hours daily, 38 percent reported cyberbullying in the past year, compared to 14 percent of those who spent less than one hour daily.
Likewise, alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco use tended to be higher among those using social media more, an association that will see further study.
There can be serious mental health consequences, including a related suicide risk in some cases, Hamilton said. Sampasa-Kanyinga noted, “The mental health risks associated with cyberbullying make this an important area for increased education and awareness within our community.”
The researchers also collaborated on a study looking at unhealthy eating behaviors and their relationship to social media.
The study used OSDUHS 2013 data from almost 10,000 students in Grades seven through 12. It went further than previous research to pinpoint risks related to specific unhealthy eating behaviors.
“We found that the greater the use of social networking sites, the greater the odds that students would skip breakfast, consume sugar-loaded drinks such as soda pop, as well as caffeine-loaded energy drinks,” said Hamilton.
For example, of the students who used social networking sites for about two hours daily, 21 percent reported skipping breakfast, versus 11 percent of those who were on social networking sites less than one hour a day.
Likewise, the numbers were 23 percent (two hours a day) and 13 percent (less than one hour a day) respectively when it came to consuming energy drinks. Interestingly, there was no significant difference in body mass index (BMI) in the students surveyed.
The study appears in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Researchers warn that young teens can be influenced by the food advertising found on social media sites.
“The social networking landscape changes so quickly, and young people always find new options and ways to network online,” said Hamilton. “Some apps disguise their social networking function, so what you see may not be what you get.”
Young people and their parents should be acutely aware of social media use benefits and risks, Hamilton said. These include:
- time spent on social media and how that may impact other aspects of life;
- the risk of cyberbullying and unhealthy eating;
- negative feelings related to the use of social media.
“When we can shine a light on issues like these, we can also promote actions to address them and minimize risk for young people,” says Dr. Hamilton.