Childhood maltreatment predicts problematic social media use in young adulthood

Young adults who have experienced abuse or neglect in childhood are more likely to show signs of problematic and compulsive social media use, according to research published in the journal Psychiatry Research.

“Through outreach work at high schools and delivering undergraduate statistics seminars, I have had many informal conversations with young people who often discuss how ‘attached’ to their devices they are,” said study author Joanne D. Worsley of the University of Liverpool.

“This sparked my interest in young people’s social media use and I wanted to understand the psychology behind excessive social media use. Young people use these platforms to cope with psychological distress and forget about their problems and that really intrigues me.”

The study of 1,029 university students found that young adults who reported more maltreatment in childhood were more likely to report problematic social media use.

Students who had experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, and physical neglect as children tended to also use social media to forget about personal problems and had tried to cut down on social media use without success. They were also more likely to say that they used social media so much that it had a negative impact on them.

The researchers also found childhood maltreatment was linked to higher levels of attachment anxiety and depressive symptoms, which in turn predicted more problematic social media use.

“Our results suggest that abusive and neglectful childhood environments affect people’s ability to form relationships as they grow up, which increases their risk of depression. In order to alleviate this psychological distress, young people tend to use social media as a coping strategy, but this often results in overuse,” Worsley told PsyPost.

“It is therefore likely that excessive social media use is a marker of other things that have ‘gone wrong’ early in a person’s life, setting off a cascade of social and psychological issues.”

But the study has some limitations.

“As our data were cross-sectional, this limits inferences about the causal direction of the proposed mechanisms. For example, it may be the case that excessive social media use leads to problems forming relationships and symptoms of depression,” Worsley explained.

“However, our key finding that childhood maltreatment leads to problematic social media use as adolescents could not happen in the reverse direction as the events are separated in time. I think it is important that we now look at the relationship between mental health problems and excessive social media use using a longitudinal design.”

“It is important to remember that self-reported symptoms assessing behaviour cannot offer evidence of clinical level impairment to warrant terms such as ‘disorder’ or ‘addiction,'” Worsley added.

“Given the growing popularity and motivational pull, concerns over the addictive properties of social media use are reasonable. However, I do not myself, at this time, believe that one of the most popular leisure activities of our time should be pathologised.”

The study, “Childhood maltreatment and problematic social media use: The role of attachment and depression“, was authored by Joanne D. Worsley, Jason C. McIntyre, Richard P. Bentall, and Rhiannon Corcoran.