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Excessive Social Media Use a Major Disruptor for Wellbeing during the Pandemic

Are we (smart)phoning it in on teen mental health? New study of Canadian youth finds clear associations between adolescent wellbeing, health behaviours, and self-reported social media use. AIAS Fellow Luseadra McKerracher has co-led the study.

Credit: Colourbox

A newly-published study, co-led by AIAF fellow Luseadra McKerracher from the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies at Aarhus University, used a combination of group interviews and survey responses from 482 Canadian teenagers during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic to understand what these teens themselves thought was shaping their mental health and wellbeing. While many factors emerged from both the interviews and the survey as contributors to teen wellbeing, excessive social media use appeared to be one of the major disruptors of sleep and of positive social interaction and one of the major promotors of anxiety and negative self-perception.  

Teenagers in Canada, Denmark and Beyond

While the research focused on Canadian teenagers, the findings may have implications for the ongoing debate surrounding teen mental health and health behaviours in many other wealthy countries, including Denmark. Danish preteens and teens are known to have some of the highest rates of smartphone and social media use in the world according to data published at OurWorldInData.org. At the same time, Danish teens also seem to be experiencing increases in loneliness and steep declines in wellbeing and life satisfaction. The new study’s findings, which are similar to those of many other recent studies on social media use and mental health among teenagers, add one more piece of evidence that excessive smartphone use may be playing a causal role in the loss of wellbeing among young people in Canada, Denmark, and beyond.

Key Factors for Wellbeing

Although the study wasn’t designed to show that one factor causes another, there were clear associations not only between social media use and wellbeing, but also between social media use and other important ways that teens spend their time, including sleeping, interacting meaningfully with friends and family, and interacting with nature. These findings hint that more social media use might be disrupting some of these key factors that previous research has shown are key to positive mental health experiences for youth.

Dr. Luseadra McKerracher, from AIAS and Department of Public Health at Aarhus University who co-led the study, commented on the findings, saying "While on its own, our survey research can’t tell us much about causes of poor teen mental health, the fact that we talked to a lot of teenagers can. And we heard again and again from teens themselves that they were losing sleep to engage socially via social media, and that they were finding both the social media use itself and the sleep loss really hard on their mental health. We also looked at loads of other research from other teams, countries, and contexts, and the story seems to be pretty consistent: excessive social media use among young people is not good for their sleep, their physical activity levels, or their wellbeing.”

Strategies for Effective Interventions for Healthy Wellbeing are Crucial

The study emphasizes the need for awareness of the potential risks associated with excessive smartphone use among Danish teenagers. The researchers urge parents, educators, and policymakers to prioritize strategies that promote a healthy balance between digital engagement and other essential aspects of adolescent wellbeing.

Further research and collaboration among various stakeholders is crucial to developing effective interventions that address the negative impacts of excessive smartphone use on teen mental health. By promoting healthy digital habits and providing support for alternative activities such as in-person social interactions and nature-based experiences, the researchers are hopeful that some of these adverse effects can be mitigated.

Access the full scientific article

The full research article entitled "Resilience in adolescence during the COVID-19 crisis in Canada" was published in the journal BMC Public Health is now available online at: https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-023-15813-6.


Luseadra McKerracher has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie (grant agreement 754513), and the Aarhus University Research Foundation.


For media inquiries or to request an interview with the researchers, please contact Luseadra McKerracher
Email: luseadramckerracher@aias.au.dk.

Luseadra McKerracher, PhD, Junior Fellow,
Aarhus Institute for Advanced Studies; and
Incoming Assistant Professor,
Department of Public Health
Aarhus University