A recent article that appeared in the Guardian last week has raised concerns about how social media use, especially before going to bed or at night, may be harming teenagers. While the idea that being online 24/7 is bad for you is not groundbreaking, we are now collecting concrete evidence for the damages it causes to young people’s health. Problems arising from excessive use of social media include sleep deprivation and disruption, increased levels of anxiety and depression, and alteration of emotional engagement and social interactions. In spite of all this, however, it might not be too late to do something about it, even if it’s simply telling our kids ‘to switch it off’.
A study led by Dr Heather Cleland Woods (University of Glasgow) conducted on 467 teenagers analysed their social media use throughout the day and at night. The results confirmed that overall social media use impacts on sleep quality. More specifically, Cleland Woods found that those teenagers who log on at night to make sure they are ‘in the loop’ with what’s going on could be damaging their sleep quality, lowering their self-esteem, and increasing their risk of anxiety and depression.
Night-time social media use has multiple drawbacks. As a BBC article explains, general screen use during the day and in particular before bedtime is associated with disrupted sleep. This is because staring at an illuminated screen sends the wrong signals to our brain and unnecessarily stimulates it, making it more alert. As a result, our natural body clock is disrupted, making it more difficult to enjoy a good night’s sleep. And this only adds to the wider problem of teens’ sleep deprivation. Sleep is more important for teens than for anybody else; scientists agree that teenagers need 9.5 hours of sleep each night, even though on average they only get 7.5. The problem of young people’s sleep deprivation has lead Paul Kelley, of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, to push for a change in school habits. After leading in depth studies of circadian rhythms (our internal body clock), he has argued that 16-year-olds should start school at 10am and 18-year-olds at 11am.
On top of physical problems having to do with sleep cycles, teenagers’ night use of social media is alarming for a second reason. Let us reflect for a second: if teenagers feel the impellent need to check their Facebook at 3am just to make sure they are not ‘missing out’ (classic FOMO), we might be dealing with actual clinical addiction. Let’s face it, we are all more or less addicted to social networks, but problems arise when this becomes unhealthy and interferes with our everyday lives. Being able to establish scientifically when our use of social media becomes pathological might be one step towards the solution of the aforementioned addiction. Dr Cecilie Andraessen (University of Bergen) and her team have developed a way to assess the level of social media addiction, called the BFAS (Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale). They have came up with six basic criteria, including spending a lot of time planning how to use Facebook and using it to forget about personal problems, and asked participants to answer how often they experienced them. Analysing the answers given by participants enables Andraessen to assess the level of addiction to Facebook, which will give us a starting point to think about measures to overcome it.
One final issue raised by Cleland Woods’s study is that of emotional engagement and social interactions. The study asked teenagers questions about their emotional investment in social media, the pressure they felt to be available 24/7, and the resulting anxiety if they did not respond immediately to texts or posts. The general tendency among teenagers is to check their phones continually, because, as teenager June Eric Udorie says, they don’t want friends who messaged them ‘to feel ignored’. This highlights the extent to which social media play a key role in teens’ life and friendships, and this seems to be particularly true for girls. The Guardian reports that rather than talking to their parents, girls seek comfort on social media when they are worried, by Snapchatting friends or browsing Facebook. And virtual interactions may have more negative implications as well, the most concerning of which being cyber-bulling. According to recent studies, one in five young people has experienced online abuse, and cyber-bulling now appears to be more common than face-to-face abuse. As Andrew Dunnett, director of the Vodafone Foundation, said, “the new generation that was born digital thrives in a world of constant connectivity, but there are clear risks for young people as well as benefits”.
We may wonder whether there is anything that we can do about the ‘clear risks’ Dunnett mentions. In order to tackle the issue of night-time social media use, Clealand Woods posed the idea of a “digital sunset”: teens might benefit from an ‘early switch off’ of their digital devices before bedtime, which could improve their sleep and their mental health. More importantly, writing about these issues on the Internet may be a big step towards the solution. As a study of the Northwest University shows, teenagers tend to look up information about health online more than anywhere else, with the Internet far surpassing books, TV, radio, newspapers, or magazines. Fitness and nutrition are the most popular issues researched, but stress, anxiety, and depression hold the second place, showing that mental health issues are increasingly becoming object of interest among young people. This means that if they come across online articles (or blog posts) concerning their own health (provided they show up high enough on Google), there is a good chance they may take them seriously and hopefully adapt their habits accordingly. That is to say, by switching it off.