A major UK study that has found 14-year-old girls are twice as likely to show signs of social media-linked depression compared to boys would show “very similar” results if Irish young people were surveyed, a leading Irish psychiatrist has said.
Two-fifths of girls studied by University College London researchers had suffered online harassment or online bullying compared to one-quarter of boys, while 40 per cent of girls, compared to 28 per cent of boys, had suffered sleep loss because of online habits.
Nearly 11,000 young people were surveyed by the UCL-run UK Millennium Cohort Study – a research project that follows the children from birth – published on Friday in the online journal, EClinicalMedicine.
Social media taps into one of the fundamental causes of human unhappiness, which is comparing ourselves with others
Four in 10 of the girls surveyed used social media for more than three hours per day compared with one-fifth of boys. Just 4 per cent of girls said they did not use social media at all, compared to one-tenth of the boys.
One in eight of the girls surveyed with light social media use habits showed signs of “having more severe (clinically relevant) depression, compared to 38 per cent of those with heavy social media use habits.
"The big problem with social media is it taps into one of the fundamental causes of human unhappiness, which is comparing ourselves with others," said Prof Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and a consultant psychiatrist at Tallaght hospital.
“The particular toxicity with social media is it allows us to compare ourselves with other people more often, more quickly and in more detail than has ever been possible in human history before,” he went on.
Prof James O'Higgins Norman, director of Dublin City University's National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, said: "Many international studies including in Ireland have also found similar results showing a connection between cyberbullying and depression.
“Girls have been found to be at a higher risk on social networking sites than boys. Girls are more likely to use social media to communicate, which could increase their exposure to possible negative effects,” he said.
"Social media use is linked to depression and poor mental health. This is the first paper where we have been able to look at potential explanations for that," said Prof Yvonne Kelly of UCL's Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare.
No similar study has yet been done in Ireland. However, Jigsaw, a youth mental health charity, is working with University College Dublin on research about the social media habits of young people here that will be published later this year.
Digital age of consent rules – which were left last year in Ireland at 16 after the Government’s proposal to set it at 13 was defeated in the Dáil – do little to help, he argued, since they “don’t have the enormous effect on human behaviour that we hope they will have.
"The only way for sustainable change is to make people realise that they need to change their behaviour themselves. External rules will only take us so far," the professor told The Irish Times.
“Far more important is greater individual awareness of the anxieties and the unhappinesses that come with intemperate use of social media, just as with intemperate use of anything else.”
However, he went on to say that ascribing a gender difference to social media “might be going a little bit far” since depression is twice as common in women than men across all age groups anyway.