Children and teens who spend too much time on Facebook and other social media sites may develop mental problems.
In a report from the Office of National Statistics in the U.K., children ages 10 to 15 years old who spend at least three hours on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
"Social websites are ever-present features of social life, especially for the young. While they may provide an additional way to connect with others and form relationships and thus increase children's mental health, they could also be a source of social comparison, cyber bullying and isolation," researchers wrote (PDF).
Findings revealed that in 2012 and 2013, about 8 percent of school children spent more than three hours on Facebook, followed by Instagram and Pinterest. Girls are more likely to go online on these sites than boys. According to the report, long hours on social media sites caused distortions in how children view themselves and how they perceive the differences between virtual and real life worlds.
For example, children may be misled by inaccurate information on social media sites, and take unverified data as facts. In addition, reduced real life social interactions may cause their social skills like listening and developing empathy to suffer. Prevalence of cyber bullying in social media sites is also very detrimental to mental health.
That is not to say that social media sites are not without benefits in terms of mental health. Dr. Meena Vimalananda, medical director of child and adolescent services at the private Sheppard Pratt Health System, said that these sites can help the youth learn more about social interactions and the world at large.
"For those children who lack self-confidence or have been socially awkward...this gives them a way to feel connected to a much larger world with incredible anonymity," Vimalananda said.
For children who are at risk or already experiencing mental health problems, however, spending time on these sites could cause more harm than good.
"It takes away from immediate connectedness to their families - to the support system that is most familiar with them...understand them [and] support them," Vimalananda said. This will then lead the children to become more isolated, building connections in the virtual world that nobody in their real life knows.
Experts advise parents to set limitations on entertainment media and provide guidance on media choices. They are also recommended to teach children how to use social media safely and how to avoid potential pitfalls in the use of these platforms.