Lack of sleep more harmful than social media for teens, study finds

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Social media, with its constant presence and judgement from peers, has long been considered a threat to young people's self-esteem.

But new research from the UK, published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, has put forward the idea that lack of sleep has a bigger impact on teenagers' mental health than social media. 

Scientists from Imperial College London, who analysed data from around 10,000 school children, said that there is a link between adolescents who check their social media accounts more than three times a day and feelings of psychological distress.

However, they believe that the negative feelings are not directly related to social media.

The reasoning behind this is that when they accounted for other factors that could be impacting mental health, such as cyber bullying, lack of sleep and physical activity, the association with poor mental health practically disappeared in the female participants.

Lead author, Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said he believes it would be "biologically implausible" for social media to negatively affect one gender and not another.

"The causal arrow isn't from social media, we believe, to distress, it actually comes through these other things that are enabled by social media," Professor Viner said.

"It's about the content and the displacement, not about the platform or the use of social media."

But Martine Oglethorpe, an educator in digital wellbeing and online safety, says that we need to be really careful when interpreting the results of this study and others like it.

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"[This study says] kids are affected more by cyberbullying and lack of sleep because they are checking their phones than they are by social media use. To me that is one and the same," she says.

"Cyberbullying and checking of phones are all played out on some form of social media and thus the correlation is the same."

Oglethorpe says that it is difficult to draw conclusions from factors such as how many times a teen checks their phone. "We still don't know whether already vulnerable children are more likely to check their phones in search of something else or those checking their phones more often are going to develop greater vulnerabilities," she explains.

"It is always going to be a chicken or the egg scenario when it comes to social media and wellbeing."

The message for concerned parents is to look at everything that is going on for the child rather than assuming any mental health issues are phone related.

"If young people are having a positive experience on the screen, are able to separate from the screen in order to get adequate sleep and are able to manage their time on devices to fit in all of the other activities into their day then we know these teens do the best in terms of their wellbeing," Oglethorpe explains.

Oglethorpe also notes that access to phones and tablets can interfere with sleep.  "Obviously when they are within reach there is greater chance to check them," she says.

"Time on a device therefore equates to less hours of sleep as well as diminished quality of sleep especially if one is still mulling over online conversations or hearing beeps and notifications whilst trying to sleep."

To ensure that social media doesn't impact sleep Oglethorpe suggests keeping phones out of bedrooms. "Try and do other activities an hour or so before bed so any conversations etc. are not the last things on their mind whilst trying to sleep," she adds.