How social media helps or harms children’s mental health is to be examined by leading experts in social geography and mental health from the Universities of Portsmouth and Sheffield.
Professor Liz Twigg, in the Department of Geography at Portsmouth, has been awarded funding from the charity MQ to carry out the first long-term study of thousands of 10-15 year olds.
Funding was awarded against a sharp rise in mental illness among young people in the UK.
The results are expected to give the first indication of the effect of social media on the generation brought up with it, and will be used to give clinicians and mental health workers guidelines in how social media may influence the mental wellbeing of young adolescents.
Professor Twigg said: “Poor mental health among children is on the rise and it’s unclear whether social media is implicated or is helping.
“A snapshot of some children who are suffering mental illness at any one time isn’t enough – we need to be able to see the long-term effects of a lot of factors in children’s lives, including their social media use alongside the degree of their parents’ engagement in their children’s lives, their parents’ mental health, their social and economic circumstances, and details about the neighbourhoods they live in.
“It may be that online friendships are a great help in protecting some children, or that social media communities help some children develop resilience to stresses in their lives.
“It could be some uses of social media undermine children’s well-being or are more damaging for boys than girls, for example – we simply don’t know yet.
“We need a more complex and detailed understanding of the contexts in which social media might provide a level of resilience for young people.”
Existing research shows positive and negative effects of social media use but no research has examined its long-term effect in different types of individual across different types of household and neighbourhood. There is also little research on the early adolescent years (10-15 year olds).
The researchers will use data from Understanding Society, a complex dataset which, from 2009, has gathered on-going details of thousands of young people’s living situations, including their own sense of happiness and their parents’ mental health and socio-economic status.
Professor Twigg hopes that by shining a light on this under-researched group, well designed interventions could make a substantial difference to their long-term mental health.
Her goal is that by 2030 poor mental health among young people will have begun to decline and all key youth mental health workers will understand the complex ways in which social media can influence a young person’s mental health status.
Alongside publishing results in an academic journal, Professor Twigg will work with Professor Scott Weich, a consultant psychiatrist and expert in mental health epidemiology from the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield, to provide guidelines to doctors, nurses, social workers and others.
According to the funder MQ, three children in every school class have a diagnosable mental health condition.
Professor Twigg has previously used similarly large, complex government data sets to study Britain’s physical, behavioural and social health.