A large study across 18 countries found that adolescents with intense social media use are more likely to experience poor sleep patterns. These findings suggest that social media use by adolescents may be a global concern that should become a priority of international public health efforts. The research has been published in the journal Sleep Health.
One potential consequence of adolescents’ frequent social media use is sleep pattern disruption. Inadequate sleep is common among teenagers, affecting 30% to 70% of the adolescent population in Europe and North America. Moreover, there is emerging evidence that social jetlag and other sleep patterns can adversely affect health.
The researchers define social jet lag as “the inconsistent timing of sleep across the week, whereby, due to a shift toward a later chronotype during adolescence and early school start times, adolescents tend to sleep less and wake up earlier during the week but sleep more and wake up later on weekends.”
Adolescents who frequently use electronic devices may experience shorter and lower-quality sleep. Social media usage is believed to contribute to this issue as it can delay sleep onset due to blue light exposure, stimulate cognitive activity before bed, displace sleep-inducing activities, and disrupt sleep. Moreover, psychosocial influences such as fear of missing out (FOMO) and social expectations may also play a significant role in sleep disturbance.
Meyran Boniel-Nissim and colleagues sought to fill the gap in the research. They collected data from 18 European and North American countries, looking for a potential correlation between digital media use and sleep patterns in adolescents of different age groups. The study analyzed various levels of digital media use, ranging from nonactive to problematic, and hypothesized that intense and problematic use would hurt sleep patterns, especially among older adolescents.
The necessary data was collected from the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Survey 2017-2018, an international cross-sectional study on adolescent health in collaboration with the World Health Organization. The study included 94,693 participants, of which 86,542 were considered in the final sample. The questionnaire used in the study contained four items taken from the EU Kids Online Survey to identify adolescents with intense social media use, and the Social Media Disorder Scale was used to recognize those with problematic social media use.
The intense social media use measure used a survey with four items asking about how often the adolescent had online contact with different categories of people through social media, with five frequency options. The highest frequency reported across the four categories was used to establish three levels of intense SMU. The problematic social media use measure used a scale with nine items related to addictive behaviors during the past year, and adolescents who reported six or more symptoms were classified as problematic users. The measures were combined into four categories of social media use: nonactive user, active user, intense user, and problematic user.
The data revealed both intense and problematic social media use were linked to reduced sleep hours, delayed bedtime, and increased social jetlag. It also found significant gender differences, with girls having a higher risk of sleep problems related to intense and problematic social media use.
Conversely, regular online interaction with others and non-problematic social media use, also known as active social media use, has only minor effects on sleep patterns compared to nonactive social media use in most countries.
The researchers also found variations between countries, implying that the national and cultural setting plays a crucial role in interpreting the outcomes. For example, on school days, intense social media use resulted in an average loss of 5 minutes of sleep in Belgium, while Latvian students lost an average of 22 minutes.
The data also suggests that psychosocial factors, such as social commitments that extend into the night or engaging in co-rumination about problems with others, may explain the connection between problematic and excessive social media use and sleep-related issues.
There were some acknowledged limitations to the study. First, the data was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic. This event may have permanently changed adolescent social media use and sleep-related behaviors in ways that have yet to be understood. Second, the study’s cross-sectional design makes it challenging to determine cause and effect; finally, the self-report method of gathering data may be subject to.
The study, “Adolescent use of social media and associations with sleep patterns across 18 European and North American countries“, was authored by Meyran Boniel-Nissim, Jorma Tynjal, Inese Gobina, Jana Furstova, Regina J.J.M. van den Eijnden, Claudia Marino, Helena Jericek Klanscek, Solvita Klavina-Makrecka, Anita Villerusa, Henri Lahti, Alessio Vieno, Suzy L. Wong, Jari Villberg, Joanna Inchley, and Genevieve Gari.