Daily use of social media may be associated with a higher risk of teenage gambling, binge drinking, and other risky behaviors, according to new research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Led by the University of Glasgow, the study, Social Media Use and Health Risk Behaviours in Young People: systematic review and meta-analysis, interrogated the association between social media use and health risk behaviors in adolescents.
Notably, researchers found a link between social media use and risky youth behaviors. Youth, in this case, is defined as ages 10 through 19.
However, they also cautioned that a better understanding of the impacts at play and the mitigations required needs more investigation.
From the abstract:
Social media use is associated with adverse health risk behaviours in young people, but further high-quality research is needed to establish causality, understand effects on health inequalities, and determine which aspects of social media are most harmful.
Gambling Risk Near Triple Among Social Media Users
The joint project between the universities of Glasgow, Strathclyde, and Public Health Scotland found social media is associated with several harmful adolescent health risks.
Specifically, the finding associated frequent social media use with a gambling risk of almost triple (2.84x) that of adolescents with little or no social media exposure.
In addition to gambling, regular social media use showed associations with several risky behaviors, including increased alcohol consumption (1.48x).
Other negative associations found include:
- Tobacco use (1.85x)
- Sexual risk behaviors (1.77x)
- Multiple risk behaviors (1.75x)
- Anti-social behavior (1.73x)
- Drug use (1.28x)
However, researchers also noted evidence to attribute causality remains limited.
Still, social media, which, as the study defined, includes “websites and applications that host numerous user activities,” has “revolutionized the communication landscape.”
Worldwide, nearly 139 million adolescents (aged 10-19) are on Instagram. An additional 120.2 million youth used Facebook (Meta) in 2022.
Recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a powerful medium to promote health, harmful effects of social media are also possible, researchers said in the study BMJ published on Nov. 29.
That’s partly due to “aggravated peer pressure and social norms,” they wrote. In particular, exposure to health-risk behavior on social media had the most significant evidence of harm.
Ultimately, the research team suggested a multipronged approach to protect youth from the elevated risks.
Adopting a multisector approach to securing adolescent online safety by improving digital literacy, school education, and resource provision to parents, educators, and health professionals might help to improve understanding of the different aspects of social media use (e.g., time spent, exposure to health risk behaviour content) and the potential risks or benefits they present to adolescent health.
Social Media Literacy Critical to Adolescent Safety
As the researchers noted, experimenting with risk-taking is essential to growing up.
However, as the digital world evolves, precautions across academic, governmental, health, and educational sectors may be warranted before the risks adolescents face are fully understood.
Additionally, they argued that future research should pay greater attention to socio-demographics and longitudinal studies.
Many of the risk behaviours investigated can be experimental during adolescence, and the extent to which these behaviours affect health may vary. Longitudinal research tracking adolescents into adulthood would help to study this gap.
In the meantime, the study’s corresponding author, Dr. Amrit Kaur Purba, told Bonus via email that widespread social media literacy is critical to protecting youth.
At the individual and community level, there is a need for educators, health professionals, and parents/caregivers to improve their own social media literacy to enhance their practice and, importantly, to empower adolescents to appraise information they view on social media critically and increase awareness of the potential consequences …
Importantly, rather than face the challenges social media may present to adolescent health with over-protection and prohibition, these key authoritative figures could instead prepare adolescents for the realities of the social media landscape.