There is growing concern about the role of social media use in the documented increase of adolescent mental health difficulties. However, the current evidence remains complex and inconclusive. While increasing research on this area of work has allowed for notable progress, the impact of social media use within the complex systems of adolescent mental health and development is yet to be examined. The current study addresses this conceptual and methodological oversight by applying a panel network analysis to explore the role of social media on key interacting systems of mental health, wellbeing and social life of 12,041 UK adolescents. Here we find that, across time, estimated time spent interacting with social media predicts concentration problems in female participants. However, of the factors included in the current network, social media use is one of the least influential factors of adolescent mental health, with others (for example, bullying, lack of family support and school work dissatisfaction) exhibiting stronger associations. Our findings provide an important exploratory first step in mapping out complex relationships between social media use and key developmental systems and highlight the need for social policy initiatives that focus on the home and school environment to foster resilience.
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The Understanding Society cohort data66 used in this study are available through the UK Data Service and can be accessed at https://beta.ukdataservice.ac.uk/datacatalogue/series/series?id=2000053. Researchers who would like to use Understanding Society need to register with the UK Data Service before being allowed to apply for or download datasets. M.P. accessed the data.
The code used in the current study is publicly available at https://osf.io/scz6x/.
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We thank S. Epskamp for feedback on analyzes. The authors received no specific funding for this work. Data for the current study were drawn from Understanding Society, an initiative funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and various UK government departments, with scientific leadership by the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, and survey delivery by NatCen Social Research and Kantar Public. The funders were not involved in the design, analysis, interpretation or writing up of this study.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Panayiotou, M., Black, L., Carmichael-Murphy, P. et al. Time spent on social media among the least influential factors in adolescent mental health: preliminary results from a panel network analysis. Nat. Mental Health 1, 316–326 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s44220-023-00063-7
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