FRIDAY, July 31, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Teens who frequently use social media are more likely to say they struggle with mental health concerns that are not being addressed, new Canadian research reveals.
At issue is the amount of time adolescents spend browsing and posting on sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
"It is difficult to speculate what mechanisms may link the use of social networking sites to mental health problems," said study author Dr. Hugues Sampasa-Kanyinga, from the department of epidemiology at Ottawa Public Health in Ottawa, Canada.
While the study did not prove a cause-and-effect link, Sampasa-Kanyinga noted that the "use of social networking sites can lead to poor mental health, and poor mental health may be a reason why youth use social networking sites. That said, it could be that kids with mental health problems are seeking out interactions as they are feeling isolated and alone. Or it could be that greater time online exposes one to more opportunities for cyberbullying, for instance."
Sampasa-Kanyinga and study co-author Dr. Rosamund Lewis reported their findings online recently in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
In the study, the researchers analyzed part of a youth health survey that tallied responses from more than 750 students who were enrolled in grades 7 through 12 (average age of 14) in Ottawa.
Just over a quarter said they accessed social networking sites for more than two hours every day, while about a fifth said they never did or did so rarely. More than half (54 percent) said they surfed such sites, but for two hours or less daily.
Nearly two-thirds described their mental health status as either "excellent" or "very good." About a fifth said their mental state was "good," while about 17 percent described it as "poor."
In addition, about a quarter said they had mental health support needs that were going unmet, while the remainder said they were getting the help they felt they needed. About 13 percent said they had contemplated suicide.
Ultimately, the study authors determined that teens who accessed online sites two or more hours per day were more likely to describe their mental health as "poor" and less likely to have their own perceived needs for mental health support addressed.
High use of social networking was also linked to a higher risk for psychological distress and a higher likelihood for having had suicidal thoughts.
Sampasa-Kanyinga said some of the problem might lie in the anonymity of social networks, which boosts the risk for cyberbullying. Such sites also encourage teens to compare themselves to others, she noted, while making alcohol and cigarettes more appealing and accessible.
Nevertheless, she stressed that "everything is a matter of balance," and cautioned against drawing a direct cause-and-effect link between social networking and poor mental health among teens.
"A simple use of social networking sites cannot fully explain by itself the occurrence of mental health problems," Sampasa-Kanyinga said. "There are several factors that could interact to explain mental health outcomes," she said, including substance use, bullying, body image and weight concerns, and family history and context.
That said, she advised parents to limit their child's social networking time to under two hours a day, while remaining on the lookout for mood changes, dietary shifts, sleep issues and unusual behavior.
Scott Campbell, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, described the study as "interesting," while suggesting that the effort "actually raises more questions than it helps answer."
Campbell, who was not involved with the study, pointed out that asking teens to quantify hours spent online is unreliable, given that Internet use -- unlike, say, movies -- is not easily measured in blocks of time. He also said that "the social implications of social network sites are highly dependent on how people use them, not just how much they use them."
"Generally speaking," Campbell said, "I would add that too much of anything is going to have negative implications, whether it be kale or social media." But he said more research would be needed to develop "a more nuanced picture of how different uses of social network sites by youth are associated with mental health indicators."
There's more on adolescent mental health at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.