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Social media isn’t the problem – the side effects of using it are

Social media is damaging children's mental health by affecting sleep and exposing them to cyber-bullying, the first major study on the subject has shown.

There is a significant link between children who check their social media accounts more than three times a day and who later reported feeling psychologically distressed.

The findings come from a study of nearly 10,000 teenagers by University College London and Imperial College London.

But researchers say the distress is not directly as a result of using social media but instead is due to the associated effects – exposure to cyber-bullying, lack of sleep and not exercising enough.

They suggested parents make sure a child's phone is kept out of the bedroom at night to make sure their sleep is not interrupted.


Image: Children who checked their social media accounts more than three times a day were more likely to struggle

Dr Dasha Nicholls, co-author of the study, said: "Rather than endlessly saying 'can you get off your phone, can you get off your phone?', what it's saying (is) you need to leave your phone downstairs when you go to bed, you need to make sure that you go out and get some exercise and then you can play on your whatever it is, and to ask questions about whether anything negative has happened online and make sure that parents do what they can do to protect from cyber-bullying."

Dr Nicholls, from Imperial College London, added: "In cyber-bullying, even your bed is not a safe place, and if your phone is downstairs, you can't be bullied in your bed."

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The research looked at data from the Our Futures Government study as the children progressed from age 13 to 16 between 2013 and 2016.

Forty-three percent of the children used social media more than three times a day in the first year, rising to 69% in the third.

Persistent frequent social media use in years one and two affected girls but not boys.

The NSPCC has called on social media companies to do more to protect children
Image: Parents should insist a child's phone is kept out of the bedroom at night

But when the researchers accounted for factors such as cyber-bullying, sleep and physical activity, the association all but disappeared in girls.

It is possible there were other factors, which have not ye been identified, for boys.

Study author Prof Russell Viner, the President of the Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health, said: "The causal arrow isn't from social media, we believe, to distress.

"It actually comes through these other things that are enabled by social media.

"It's about the content and the displacement, not about the platform or the use of social media."

The study is published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal.

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