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Smartphones, social media use, and youth mental health – Expert Reaction

A new analysis suggests a link between excessive smartphone and social media use and mental distress and suicidality among young people.

The Canadian researchers also found youth engaging in heavy smartphone use are chronically sleep deprived, with negative effects on academic performance and socioemotional functioning. They note that most existing data are observational, making causality difficult to establish.

The Science Media Centre gathered expert reaction on the research.

Associate Professor Kerry Gibson, School of Psychology, University of Auckland, comments:

A balanced view on the effects of social media on young people’s mental health

“It is very important that we maintain a balanced view that recognises the different roles that social media can play in young people’s lives. Some young people may be exposed to bullying, social pressure and misinformation around mental health. But in other cases, social media might facilitate young people sharing their problems, getting information about how to cope and finding out where and when to get professional help for mental health problems.

“For young people struggling with a mental health problem, the communication they have with others through social media can be a valuable source of support. Indeed, many online forums are set up specifically for young people to talk with one another about things that trouble them – issues which in many cases they feel unable to voice in face-to-face communication. Young people also often set up ‘safe’ groups within their social media networks so that they can talk openly about sensitive and personal issues.”

Social media can be an important source of support for young people

“Research tells us that many young people are reluctant to approach a professional or another adult for help with mental health issues and social media might be one place that young people have to ‘speak’ with others about their distress. You only have to think of a young person struggling to make sense of their sexual identity in a small, conservative community to be able to imagine how important it is for them to have access to a social media forum in which they can talk openly to people who are in a similar situation.”

Young people may be more aware of the risks of social media than we suppose

“It is reassuring that some young people seem very aware of the risks of social media. Our recent research shows how young people can be careful about who they talk to about mental health issues on social media and prioritise sensitivity and kindness in the way they give support to others¹. While it may be that young adolescents still need to learn skills that older youth have learned over time we need to recognise that there are young people who are aware of the risks of social media and have found ways to safely to get support online.”

Put concerns about the effects of social media in context of other pressures

“It is also vital to put our concerns about the negative effects of social media in the context of the pressures that young people face in their lives more generally. In our research on the reasons that young people give for feeling suicidal, issues like pressure from family and school are seen as major sources of distress². Many young people also face discrimination in the real world, based on their culture, race, gender and sexuality. Our societies often leave young people feeling very isolated and alone³. In addition, young people are also increasingly aware of the dangers facing our world through climate change. Concerns related to these issues are part of the everyday lives of many young people who struggle with mental health problems. Some of these issues play out on social media – as they do in real life – but it is important not to blame the messenger but rather to engage with the pressures that young people are struggling with in many contemporary societies.”

Keep channels of communication open

“It is good to educate young people about the risks of social media use. However, if adults demonise young people’s social media use we run the risk of alienating them and closing down conversations on this important issue. It is important for adults (including professionals) to recognise that social media is, much like real world relationships, a mixed blessing. Inasmuch as young people may be at risk of being bullied, misinformed or comparing themselves unfavourably to others through social media – they may also be making friendships, finding like-minded communities, educating themselves and engaging in meaningful conversation and play. We need to talk with them about all of these things if we want to maintain the open channels of communication that support young people’s mental health.”

  1. Gibson, K. & Trnka, S. (2020). Young people’s priorities for support on social media: ‘It takes trust to talk about these issues.’ Computers in Human Behavior, 102, 238-247. 
  2. Stubbing, J. & Gibson, K. (2019). Young people’s explanations for youth suicide in New Zealand: a thematic analysis. Journal of Youth Studies. 22 (4), 520-53222 (4), 520-532.
  3. Ali, A. & Gibson, K. (2019). Young people’s reasons for feeling suicidal: An analysis of posts to a social media suicide prevention forum. Crisis.

I have no conflicts of interest.

Professor Chris Hollis, University of Nottingham, comments:

Does smartphone and social media use cause poor mental health in young people? Not surprisingly, this topical question is unlikely to have the simple answer that some people may desire.

This Canadian review of existing studies linking smartphone use, social media and youth mental health adds to an increasingly confused scientific literature and in doing so raises more questions than it answers. The paper highlights some of the challenges in this nascent field.

First, while the rise in smartphone and social media use over the last decade has paralleled an increase in youth mental health problems, and it has been shown that young people who are depressed spend more time on social media, this association does not prove causation or the direction of effects.

Second, most studies show only small effects of social media on mental health which are far outweighed by other known risk factors such as poverty, abuse and family discord.

Third, as well potential harms that smartphone and social media use may carry, they also have important benefits such as access to social support, information and online therapy.

Fourth, the content and context of social media use is likely to be more important than the duration of exposure for young people.

Fifth, social media use is likely to be more harmful to certain vulnerable young people – and may simply amplify risks in the off-line word. Hence, a key way forward for research is both to conduct longitudinal studies that identify both risk and protective factors in order to build digital literacy and resilience in young people.

Note: Chris is giving a public lecture on mental health and digital media usage in young people at the University of Auckland on Monday 17 February.