Teens, Social Media Usage, and Lack of Sleep: Impact on Learning and Mental Health

There have been several really good studies published recently that are eye opening. Teen use of social media – especially at night – is truly detrimental. Even life-threatening.

Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?

Let me lay out the details as plainly as possible:

  • Mental health problems for teens are at an all time high.
  • Suicide is at an all time high.
  • Social media use is linked to depression, negative feelings
  • Teens are staying up later and later, using social media on their phones at night.
  • Lack of sleep causes depression.
  • Lack of sleep causes cognitive impairment in school.
  • Alterations to circadian rhythm cause depression.

The recent research that backs up these points:

A Common Sense Media survey shows that teens in the US teens are spending 9 hours per day online using social media, watching videos, and listening to music. And a Pew Research poll shows that over half of teens know that they spend too much time online.

A study of teens (age 14-17)  and their parents (n=226) investigated both teen reported and parent reported effects from social media usage. The study showed that reported usage of social media correlated with parent reported symptoms of  “inattention, hyperactivity/impulsivity, ODD, anxiety, and depressive symptoms”. The use of social media also correlated with the teens reporting of fear of missing out (FOMO) and loneliness.

A study of college students found that limiting social media usage to 10 minutes per platform (e.g. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram) per day decreased loneliness and depression.  “The limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression over three weeks compared to the control group. Both groups showed significant decreases in anxiety and fear of missing out over baseline, suggesting a benefit of increased self-monitoring.”

Use of social networking sites is strongly correlated to sleep deprivation and lack of cognitive function.  A study of adults found that “increased dependence on SNS [social networking sites] was correlated with decreased sleep quality and with increased everyday cognitive failures. ”

Lack of sleep – due to the alerting effects of blue light from the screens or due to simply staying up and surfing on their phones at night – may be driving the physical and mental problems associated with social media use.  A study of almost 3000 teens found that “Structural Equation Modeling analyses revealed that the association between screen time and depressive symptoms is partially or fully mediated by sleep. For social messaging, web surfing and TV/ movie watching, the three sleep variables fully mediated the positive association between screen time and depressive symptoms.”

A study of Icelandic teens found that “Less screen time (below the group median of 5.3 h/day) and more frequent vigorous physical activity (≥4x/week) were each associated with reporting fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and life dissatisfaction.”  Note that the median here was 5.3 hours per day compared with a recent US survey showing 9 hours on average per day of screen time.

Sleep time directly affects how well teens learn and make decisions.  A study using FMRI scans of teen brains who were ‘sleep deprived’ (6.5 hours of sleep) compared to well slept (10 hours of sleep) clearly showed that less sleep correlated to poorer cognitive function.  “Adolescents’ ability to process information may be especially vulnerable to sleep loss. Under ideal sleep conditions, however, they seem to be able to achieve optimal performance, particularly on more challenging problems. The functional implications of these findings may be particularly relevant to teens, who are often sleep deprived and are constantly required to process academic, social, and emotional input”

Why do we – society as a whole – have our heads in the sand on this topic?

As adults, we are often under-slept and addicted to social media as well – thus impairing our ability to make rational decisions regarding the impact of social media and internet usage time on our kids.  Parents are also guilty of FOMO, or rather fear of their kids missing out (FOTKMO?). But it is time to raise the awareness of the negative impacts of constant media usage by teens.

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