News & Views

How social media harms your mental health and your sleep

By Zach Pearl, PhD Staff

Science is just beginning to evaluate the impact of social media use on health and well-being. Mobile technology and social media has profoundly changed the landscape of our lives. Since its appearance, less than 20 years ago with blogging sites, services such as Facebook and Twitter have become highly popular among both children and adults. Facebook, as the biggest social networking platform, currently has more than one billion active users and it is estimated that this number will significantly increase, especially in developing countries. These networks have a huge impact on modern lives, as they change inter-personal communication and interaction. The constant need to be available 24/7 on social media could increase the risk for developing depression and anxiety, especially in teenagers. Moreover, it can lead to poorer sleep quality.

Sleep and the digital generation

Insufficient sleep is an increasingly important health problem especially in the younger western population. Adolescents require between 8.5 and 10 hours of sleep per night; yet, most of them (58%) sleep 7 hours or less1.

Inadequate sleep on a regular basis relates to many damaging mental and health outcomes. These include reduced memory and cognitive functioning2, poor academic and work performance3, decreased motivation4 and safety risks such as falling asleep while driving5.

Studies have shown that electronic media consumption is associated with sleep disorders6 7 8 (To learn more on that subject, read our previous column about ‘The negative effect of electronic devices on sleep‘). Over the past decade, many studies in young adults linked electronic media use with lack of sleep and poor sleep quality9. More recently, studies have associated high rates of social media use with greater sleep disturbances10, and obsessive Facebook checking with poorer quality of sleep11.

The association between Facebook-dependency and poor sleep quality

Facebook has several advantages, based on free access, facilitating communication as well as sharing personal information. However, excessive use might result in negative consequences including misuse, dependence and addiction12 as well as potentially affect both life and sleep quality. In a recent study more than half of the involved students who were Facebook-dependent reported poor sleep quality13.

Association between Facebook-dependency, poor sleep and academic performance

social networks

University students, especially freshmen students, are highly impacted by the “sleep epidemic”14. In one study, more than 76% of university students reported occasional sleep problems15, and in a series of studies 12%–42% of students reported regular poor sleep quality16 17.

Staying up late combined with early morning awakenings for school easily lead to insufficient sleep and buildup of sleep debt during the school week. Sleep restriction studies suggest that lack of sleep and/or late timing of sleep potentially have a large spectrum of negative effects on adolescents’ academic achievements, health, and safety18 19. Students who are tired and sleepy in classroom, have trouble performing tasks related to academic duties. These include effective time management, and sustaining effort, interest, and attention. Therefore, they do poorly at school and tired students feel less satisfied with their school experience. Not surprisingly, both short sleep and late bedtime go hand in hand with poor school performance. This can be explained by the reduced attention and increased daytime sleepiness20.

Online social networking and depression

With the rise of social networks, the time children and adolescents spend in front screens has increased significantly. This further minimized interpersonal communication both in the family and in the wider social environment. Although social networks allow individuals to interact with big crowds, these interactions are shallow and cannot adequately replace everyday face-to-face communication. This may lead to loneliness and depression.

Frequent social network use is considered to be associated with certain behavioural and mental health changes21. There is a correlation between online social networking and depression21, low self-esteem22 and suppression of emphatic skills23. A recent study reported that Facebook use gives a person the impression that other users are happier, as well as a feeling that “life is not fair” which further deteriorate the depression condition24.

As reviewed in our previous column, ‘Is sleep related to psychiatric disorders?‘, depressed individuals may suffer from a variety of sleep problems, including difficulty of falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep (sleep maintenance insomnia), non-refreshing sleep, and daytime sleepiness.

Tips for better sleep

  • Charge your mobile devices out of the bedroom so you will not hear it buzz in the middle of the night
  • Stop social media use at least an hour before bedtime
  • Replace this time with relaxing activity
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night do not go online and read the latest updates on social media

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