Social media affecting girls’ wellbeing, says University of Essex research

Young people and youth problems. Preteen girl left alone at home, sends text messages with phone to

Young people and youth problems. Preteen girl left alone at home, sends text messages with phone to friends. Concept of potential victim of cyber bulling and absence of parental control. Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Not so long ago, the most troubling thing the average 10 to 12-year-old had to do after school was work out how to juggle watching that night’s episode of Blue Peter with getting their maths homework done and perhaps fitting in an hour’s outside play with their friends.

Times are no longer so simple. Earlier this year the Children’s Commissioner issued a stark warning in a report showing that modern 10 to 12-year-olds are becoming increasingly anxious about their online image and “keeping up appearances”.

New research carried out in this region appears to back up those findings and raises concerns that social media seems to have the greatest negative impact on the wellbeing of girls who start using it as young as 10.

These girls, using SnapChat, Whatsapp and other social media for more than an hour a day, are more likely to develop wellbeing issues by the time they are 15, according to a study by Dr Cara Booker at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, working with researchers at University College London.

The research, based on a survey of 9,859 UK adolescents aged 10 to 15, found adolescent girls used social media more than boys.

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By age 13, about half of the girls surveyed used social media for more than one hour a day on a typical school day, compared to one-third of boys.

Social media use increased with age in both genders, but girls were still more prolific users than boys by the age of 15, with 59% of girls interacting on social media for an hour or more each day compared to 46% of boys.

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The study, published in the BMC Public Health journal, found that wellbeing declined throughout adolescence for boys and girls, but the drop was larger for girls.

Researchers found that throughout adolescence happiness scores dropped nearly three points from 36.9 to 33.3 in girls, and two points from 36.02 to 34.55 in boys.

Participants were assessed using a happiness score on different aspects of their lives including family and school.

They also filled out a “strengths and difficulties” questionnaire measuring negative aspects of wellbeing such as emotional and behavioural problems.

The study used data from the youth panel of the UK Household Panel Study between 2009 and 2015 - a large national survey which interviews all members of a household annually.

Dr Booker said: “Our findings suggest it is important to monitor early interactions with social media, particularly in girls, as this could have an impact on wellbeing later in adolescence and perhaps throughout adulthood.

“Since we did not observe an association between social media use and wellbeing among boys, other factors, such as the amount of time spent gaming, might be associated with the boys’ observed decline in wellbeing.”

However, she said, the fact that social media use didn’t seem to have the same effect on boys’ wellbeing as that of girls could be something for future research to look at.

“It could be down to differences in the types of people that girls and boys follow, types of content being put onto social media by girls and boys and also whether girls and boys feel different types of pressure to maintain their social media profile,” she added.

“We hope this will be useful evidence for policy makers looking at whether time spent on social media is having an impact on health. There have also been calls for the technology industry to look at in-built time limits. Our study really backs this up - the amount of increasing time online is strongly associated with a decline in wellbeing in the young, especially for girls. Young people need access to the internet for homework, for watching TV and to keep in touch with their mates of course, but do they really need to spend one, two, three or four hours chatting, sharing and comparing on social media every school day?”

Last year, Norfolk teenager Hannah Stone, then 16, spoke out about the effects social media had on her as part of a bid to tackle body image worries alongside the National Citizen Service.

She said: “Instagram has been both poisonous and life-saving. On one hand, the media platform is centred on one’s image, and on the other, it allows me to connect with people in a similar position to myself but the pressure to present perfection (isn’t helpful). Before I post a photo on Instagram or Facebook I over-think it to the extent I often do not post the images I would like to. I think the worry is mainly caused by other people’s judgement, and the pressure from society to conform to an ‘acceptable’ image.”

National Citizen Service research around teens and body image found that 58% of teens have experienced feelings of jealously, negativity and insecurity as a result of social media while feminist campaigner June Eric-Udorie, writing in the Guardian in 2015, said: “It’s becoming more and more obvious how the pressures of social media disproportionately affect teenage girls. I can see it all around me. Pressure to be perfect. To look perfect, act perfect, have the perfect body, have the perfect group of friends, the perfect amount of likes on Instagram. Perfect, perfect, perfect. And if you don’t meet these ridiculously high standards, then the self-loathing and bullying begins.”

Meanwhile, the 2017 e-Safer Suffolk Cybersurvey found children are accessing social media before the minimum age limit; 80% of our 13-year-olds have a social media profile. According to more data collected from Understanding Society, the number of young girls using social media for more than three hours on an average school day has doubled in just four years.

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