Social media 'adversely affecting' teenage mental health, study says

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A new U.K. study shows that teenagers' mental health is deteriorating, and blames the problem on too much social media and too little exercise.

Apple's Tim Cook has previously said he doesn't want his nephew using social media, and now a study from The Prince's Trust has attempted to quantify the potential problems. Along with the UK's Education Policy Institute, and supermarket chain Tesco, the report studied mental health, and self-esteem issues in young people aged 11, 14, and 17.

The study, "Young people's mental and emotional health," is concerned with a range of issues affecting teenagers, including the coronavirus pandemic. However, according to the full research paper, there is a marked drop in "median wellbeing scores" as teenagers become active on social media.

"We find a significant relationship between heavy social media use at age 14 and worse self-esteem and higher psychological distress at age 17," says the report. "[However we] do not find a similar relationship between heavy social media use and wellbeing."

Alongside issues such as the pandemic, lack of exercise, and arguing with parents, the report examines how social media affects both boys and girls. For instance, it says that one in three girls are unhappy with their appearance by age 14, compared to one in seven at the end of primary (grade) school, around age 11.

There is also a marked difference between boys and girls.

"Heavy social media use is associated with worse scores on all outcomes in girls [of] age 14 and 17," continues the report. "But only worse wellbeing for boys at age 14."

"While girls tended to focus on the negative impact on body image," it says. "Boys felt that the images they saw on social media platforms could be aspirational.

The Prince's Trust is recommending a series of measures to the UK government about educating young people on these topics.

While unrelated to this report, Tim Cook's concerns about similar issues have resulted in Apple taking certain steps to help. "I don't have a kid," he said in 2018, "but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won't allow; I don't want them on a social network."

Apple subsequently introduced a School Time version of Do Not Disturb, with the launch of the Apple Watch SE. It also has Screen Time, and most recently brought out Apple Fitness+.

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