Use of social media among youth is linked with unhealthy behaviours

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Researchers found that youths who use social media are more likely to engage in dangerous health behaviours, such as increased use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, antisocial conduct, risky sexual behaviour, and gambling. The study was published in BMJ.

The strongest evidence of harm was seen when individuals were exposed to risky health behaviour content on social media, such as alcohol advertisements, especially when it came to alcohol consumption and poor eating.

According to the researchers, more investigation is required to prove causation, comprehend the impact on health disparities and identify the most detrimental features of social media.

Although social media use has grown quickly and is increasingly seen as a tool for health promotion, there are worries about how it can influence teens' dangerous health habits.

Previous evaluations have found negative connections between social media and several dangerous behaviours, but they did not particularly look into social media, only examined university and college students, and did not rate the quality of the studies.

To address this knowledge gap, the researchers set out to examine the association between social media use and risky health behaviours in adolescents (10-19-year-olds).

Their findings are based on an analysis of over 250 social media measures reported in 73 studies from 1997 to 2022 involving 1.4 million adolescents (average age 15 years).

Most of the studies were carried out in high-income countries and were of varying quality, but the researchers were able to assess the certainty of evidence using the recognised GRADE system.

Exposure to risky health behaviour content on social media had the strongest evidence of harm, particularly for unhealthy eating and alcohol use, compared with no exposure.

For alcohol consumption, stronger associations were found for adolescents aged 16 years and older and for exposure to user-generated content compared with marketer-generated content.

Spending at least two hours a day on social media doubled the odds of alcohol consumption compared with less than two hours of use.

The researchers point out that most social media measures relied on personal recall and they can't rule out the possibility that other unmeasured factors, such as parental health risk behaviours, may have influenced their results.

Nevertheless, this was a comprehensive and well-designed review, and the researchers took steps to minimise the impact of factors such as variation in study designs and publication bias. "Experimental and risk-taking behaviours are an inherent part of adolescence," they wrote.

"However, as safeguards for a digital world are still evolving, precaution across academic, governmental, health and educational sectors may be warranted before the risks of adolescents' use of social media are fully understood."

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