If you’ve scrolled through any of your various social media feeds lately, you might have noticed your mood change depending on what you’re seeing. But social media’s impact often goes well beyond small mood fluctuations. Heavy use of social media is linked to mental health fluctuations, as well. And now, a new study suggests that heavy use of social media has gendered impacts on youth mental health — specifically, that social media affects girls more than boys.
The study, published in the journal The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, examined several factors that can influence young people’s mental health. Over 12,000 young people were interviewed from nearly 900 schools in England. The interviews prompted the students — first interviewed at 13 years old, and again each year until they turned 16 — to reflect on their amount of social media use, exposure to cyberbullying, amount of sleep and physical activity, and self-reported mental wellness standards. No data on trans and non-binary children were recorded in the study.
From all this data, the study concluded that “Mental health harms related to very frequent social media use in girls might be due to a combination of exposure to cyberbullying or displacement of sleep or physical activity, whereas other mechanisms appear to be operative in boys.” The authors of the study did not say what those other factors were in boys. Basically, according to TIME, social media use more often leads to cyberbullying, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise in girls, and the mental health affects of those factors are more pronounced in girls than in boys.
The purpose of studying social media use alongside other factors — like sleep and exposure to cyberbullying — was partially to assess if heavy social media use itself has a negative effect on teens’ mental health. According to this study, social media platforms themselves do not necessarily have negative impacts on young people’s mental health, but heavy social media use may create more opportunities for young people to experience challenges to their mental wellness. However, the study was based on the self-reported experiences of the young people interviewed. During the interviews, the teens rated their feelings of “life satisfaction, feeling life is worthwhile, happiness, and anxiety” on a scale from 1 to 10. And here’s where the conclusions of the survey — particularly the gendered aspects — potentially come into question and require further study.
A 2016 study published in the journal BMC Public Health concluded that across the world, women self-reported significantly poorer physical and mental health than men. These self-reported reflections existed regardless of recorded gender differences in mortality levels and societal factors. These gender differences occur in self-reported experiences of depression, as well: when consent forms indicated that a more involved mental health follow-up might occur, men self-reported less depression symptoms than women, according to a 2005 study published in the journal Sex Roles.
This tendency of men to under-report experiences of depression is perhaps unsurprising, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care. That study found that men are socialized to consider depression a “feminine” struggle. In combination with the fact that men are taught to manifest pain as anger instead of sadness, the study suggested that men self-report less depression because of misogynist socialization teaching men to keep their feelings inside and beliefs that men’s emotions should be expressed with aggression when they’re expressed at all.
Social media may expose girls to more cyberbullying than boys, who tend to engage in cyberbullying behavior, according to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. This seems to lend credence to the new study on social media and young adult mental health. However, because the new study is based on self-reporting, the gendered differences in responses may well have biased the results.
Gendered socialization begins even before birth, so it is reasonable to conclude that the boys in this study had already felt like they need to under-report anxiety and sadness. Addressing the relationship between social media and mental health among children of all genders will therefore require both further study and more rigorous sensitivity to gender socialization and mental health generally. Because children of all genders deserve the mental health care they need, no matter how they have been taught to self-report.