Telegraph headline linking depression and social media isn't backed up by article

30 April 2021
What was claimed

Doubling of teenage depression rates is linked to social media use.

Our verdict

The study referred to in the article does not show this, and the expert quoted in the article said that there could be a number of factors at play.

“Doubling of teenage depression rates linked to social media use”

Daily Telegraph print edition, 28 April 2021

A headline in the Daily Telegraph has claimed that teenage depression rates doubling is linked to social media use. The article also appeared online with a different headline. The article takes data from different sources. However, the main study described in the article does not discuss a link between depression and social media, and social media usage was not investigated in the study. 

An academic quoted in the Telegraph article says that while social media may be related more generally to changes in mental health, a causal link hasn’t been established, and other factors also need to be considered. 

The Telegraph article talks about a joint research study by Liverpool University and University College London (UCL) which compared data from 14 year-olds born in 2000/01 with those born in 1991/92. The research found that rates of depression had increased from 9% in the group born in 1991/92 to 15% in the group born in 2000/01, but this particular study did not analyse social media use or attempt to draw any link between depression and social media.

Professor Yvonne Kelly, a UCL academic who was not an author of this study, is quoted in the Telegraph article as saying that Generation Z are spending more time on social media and that the increased rate of depression “could be to do with the content and context of that use. Social media could be a conduit but there is still a question over whether it is causally related to markers of wellbeing.

“There are many influences on well being and mental health: the pressures through education, the impact of Covid on Generation Z’s schooling and youth unemployment.” 

Professor Kelly authored a different study published in January 2019 which looked at depression and social media use in young people. This didn’t compare the data across two different birth year groups.

The researchers from Liverpool University/UCL also found that a smaller percentage of teenagers born in 2000/01 had tried alcohol, smoked cigarettes, and been involved in anti-social behaviour. The children born in the noughties had on average a reduced amount of sleep, greater rates of obesity and a greater proportion who perceived themselves as obese. 

Dr. Suzanna Gage, a co-author of the study, said that the research identifies “striking increases in mental health difficulties, BMI and poor sleep”, and said the next step is to “understand why these increases are occurring, so young people can be supported better.”

We asked the Telegraph journalist who wrote the piece for their evidence that social media had the described effect on mental health, and they forwarded us a blog post from a marketing agency about how long ‘Gen Z’ and ‘Millennials’ spend on social media. This blog post does not mention depression.

Correction 4 May 2021

We have corrected an error in this article as the birth years of the cohorts mentioned in the third paragraph were in the wrong order.

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