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New study sheds light on social media, smartphone use and self-harm in young people

New research into digital technology and young people

Last updated

10/06/24

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Self-harm is a major public health issue, with as many as one in six teenagers known to have self-harmed at some point in their life.

Despite its increasing prevalence in young people across the UK, there is a lack of research focusing on the underlying causes of self-harm – something that ultimately limits treatment options and the chances of successful early intervention.

New research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, funded by the Foundation and the Medical Research Council (MRC), has shed light on the issue, finding high levels of problematic mobile phone use, disturbed sleep, and self-harm among young people with mental health conditions.

The research, published yesterday in PLOS ONE, is the first prospective study of its kind, and provides the basis for a comprehensive resource that will allow researchers to investigate the mental health impact of digital technology use in young people.

In partnership with YoungMinds, the ‘3S-YP’ study recruited 365 young people aged between 13 and 25 years old who have accessed mental health services in South-East London.

The study reveals that over 80% of all participants had self-harmed at least once, and that high levels of depression, anxiety, and disturbed sleep were all prevalent.

On digital technology use, more than half reported using social media or their smartphones after midnight on a weekday. As well as this, nearly a quarter were found to use social media for more than five hours on a weekday.

Despite spending excessive amounts of time online, the study also showed that traditional methods of bullying, such as social exclusion, were more common among the participants than cyberbullying.

Using innovative study design, co-produced with young people with lived experience, and sourcing data from participants’ electronic health records, smartphones and social media accounts, researchers were able to build an accurate picture of each participant’s behaviour.

Participants provided data over the course of six months to establish how patterns of social media and smartphone use can be associated with self-harm and mental health.

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Rina Dutta Original Dr Rina Dutta from King’s College London

Study lead Dr Rina Dutta, a Reader in Suicidology and Psychiatry at King’s IoPPN, says, “While there has been extensive debate about the relationship between social media and smartphone use and rates of self-harm, studies up to this point have largely been limited by their design.”

She adds, “Studies [so far] have only been able to demonstrate associations rather than providing any insight into the relative timings of different behaviours or underlying mechanisms. Our comprehensive approach will allow us to properly investigate the impact of digital technology on youth mental health.”

Angela Hind Dr Angela Hind, our Chief Executive

“Smartphones and social media are ubiquitous among young people, yet we know little about the impact on their mental health,” says Dr Angela Hind, our Chief Executive.

“This research reveals some important insights into how digital technology is being used by young people with lived experience of mental health conditions, and lays the foundation for future studies in this area – which are much-needed. Ultimately, we hope these findings will lead to better support for young people who are struggling with their mental health.”

“Young people from YoungMinds Youth Advisor programme have been involved in every part of this study, using their skills and experience to guide researchers," says Hannah Kinsey, Head of Training and Service Design at YoungMinds. "This is a ground-breaking approach to participation, which shows how important it is to involve young people in both designing research and understanding the impact of social media on them."

Read the full research paper: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0299059