Teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media are more likely to report high levels of internalizing behaviors compared to adolescents who do not use social media at all, according to a new study.
The study examined the time adolescents reported spending on social media and two types of behaviors that can be indicators of mental health problems: Internalizing and externalizing, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Internalizing can involve social withdrawal, difficulty coping with anxiety or depression, or directing feelings inward. Externalizing can include aggression, acting out, disobeying, or other observable behaviors, researchers explained.
“Many existing studies have found a link between digital or social media use and adolescent health, but few look at this association across time,” said lead author Kira Riehm, M.Sc., a doctoral student in the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School.
“Our study shows that teens who report high levels of time spent on social media are more likely to report internalizing problems a year later. We cannot conclude that social media causes mental health problems, but we do think that less time on social media may be better for teens’ health.”
For the study, the researchers used a nationally representative sample of U.S. adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 from the federally funded Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health Study (PATH) between 2013 and 2016. The analysis involved 6,595 teens. Each year, participants were asked how much time they spent on social media, as well as questions pertaining to symptoms of internal and external mental health problems.
The study found that less than 17 percent of adolescents did not use social media. For those who did report using social media, 2,082, or 32 percent, reported spending less than 30 minutes; 2,000, or about 31 percent, reported spending 30 minutes to three hours; 817, or 12 percent, reported spending three to six hours; and 571, or 8 percent, reported spending more than six hours a day.
Researchers discovered that 611 teens, or about 9 percent, reported experiencing only internalizing problems, while 885, or 14 percent, reported experiencing externalizing problems only. They also found that 1,169, or about 18 percent, reported experiencing both internal and external problems. The majority — 3,930, or about 59 percent — reported no or low problems.
“Social media has the ability to connect adolescents who may be excluded in their daily life. We need to find a better way to balance the benefits of social media with possible negative health outcomes,” Riehm said.
“Setting reasonable boundaries, improving the design of social media platforms and focusing interventions on media literacy are all ways in which we can potentially find this equilibrium.”
The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.