February 21, 2024

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Social media use and health risk behaviours in young people: systematic review and meta-analysis

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Description of studies

Of 17 077 studies screened, 688 full text studies were assessed, with 126 included (73 in the meta-analysis; fig 2). The final sample included 1 431 534 adolescents (mean age of 15.0 years). Most included studies were cross-sectional (n=99; 79%) and investigated high income countries (n=113; 90%),73 with 44 studies (35%) investigating US adolescents. Appendix 11 shows the geographical distribution of included study populations. Included and excluded study characteristics are presented in appendix 11 and 12.

Fig 2
Fig 2

PRISMA flow diagram. APA=American Psychological Association.*One study92 was not included in the synthesis without meta-analysis (SWiM) as this resulted in counting of study participants twice; we were able to include estimates from this study in meta-analyses stratified by outcome where this issue did not occur

For 122 included cross-sectional and cohort studies, 57 (47%) of studies were graded high risk of bias, 31 (25%) were moderate, and 34 (28%) were low. Of the four randomised controlled trials included, two were graded with some concerns and two as low risk of bias (appendix 13). Reviewer risk of bias agreement was strong (κ=0.91).79

Social media measures reported

Within included studies, many social media exposure measures were reported, with most investigating multiple measures (appendix 14). All were incorporated in our exploration of how social media use is measured, therefore, the number of datapoints reported differs across syntheses.

In total, 253 social media measures were reported: 135 (53%) assessed frequency, 61 (24%) assessed exposure to content displaying health risk behaviour, 45 (18%) assessed time spent, and 12 (5%) other social media activities. Despite our broad definition of social media, most included studies assessed a narrow range of social media categories (or adopted a broad definition). Social networking sites was the most common category investigated (56%; n=141). Of those social media measures investigating a specific platform (n=86), Facebook was most investigated (n=40), followed by Twitter (n=10).

Of those 61 measures assessing exposure to content displaying a health risk behaviour, 36 (59%) assessed marketer generated content, 16 (26%) assessed user generated content, and nine (15%) assessed both types of content. In total, 134 (53%) of the 253 social media measures provided sufficient information to differentiate between use that was active (eg, positing and commenting on posts; n=90) or passive (eg, observing others, content, or watching videos; n=44). Exposure ascertainment primarily used unvalidated adolescent self-report surveys (n=221) with a minority using data-driven codes, validated adolescent self-report questionnaires and/or clinical records (n=32).

Social media use and health risk behaviours

Alcohol use

Alcohol use was the most extensively studied outcome (appendix 15). For time spent, 15/16 studies (93.8%) reported harmful associations (95% confidence interval 71.7% to 98.9%; n=100 354; sign test P<0.001), 16/17 studies (94.1%) for frequency (73.0% to 99.0%; n=390 843; sign test P<0.001), and 11/12 studies (91.7%) for exposure to content displaying health risk behaviour (64.6% to 98.5%; n=24 247; sign test P=0.006). The category other social media activities was investigated by one study (ie, participants had a Facebook account) that reported a harmful association (95% confidence interval 20.7% to 100%; n=4485; fig 3 for effect direction plot).

Fig 3
Fig 3

Effect direction plot for studies of the association between social media use and adolescent alcohol use, by social media exposure. Arrow size indicates sample size; arrow colour indicates study risk of bias. Sample size is represented by the size of the arrow, measured on a log scale. Outcome measure is number of outcome measures synthesised within each study. Studies organised by risk of bias grade, study design, and year of publication. Repeat cross-sectional studies, multiple study populations from different countries, and age subsets originating from the same study reported as separate studies. ESP=Spain; FIN=Finland; KOR=South Korea; NOS=assessed via adapted Newcastle Ottawa Scale; RCS=repeat cross-sectional study; SM=social media

In meta-analyses, frequent or daily (v infrequent or non-daily) social media use was associated with increased alcohol consumption (odds ratio 1.48 (95% confidence interval 1.35 to 1.62); I2=39.3%; n=383 068; fig 4A). In stratified analyses (appendix 16, p162-167), effect sizes were larger for adolescents 16 years or older compared with participants who were younger than 16 years (1.80 (1.46 to 2.22) v 1.34 (1.26 to 1.44); P<0.01 for test of differences). Social networking sites were associated with increased alcohol consumption, while microblogging or media sharing sites had an unclear association (P=0.03).

Fig 4
Fig 4

Forest plots for association between frequency of social media use and A) alcohol use, B) drug use, and C) tobacco use. (A) Binary exposure (frequent or daily v infrequent or non-daily) and binary or continuous alcohol use outcome meta-analysis, with OR used as common metric (N=383 068). (B) Binary exposure (frequent/daily v infrequent/non-daily) and binary or continuous drug use outcome meta-analysis, with OR used as common metric (N=117 645). (C) Binary exposure (frequent v infrequent) and binary or continuous tobacco use outcome meta-analysis, with OR used as common metric (N=424 326). Hard drugs were defined by the cited papers as prescription drugs without a doctor’s prescription (eg, OxyContin), cocaine crack, methamphetamine, ecstasy, heroin, or opioids. CI=confidence interval; ESP=Spain; FIN=Finland; KOR=South Korea; OR=odds ratio; RoB=Risk of bias; SM=social media; SNS=Social networking sites

Social media use for 2 h or more (v <2 h per day) was associated with increased alcohol consumption (odds ratio 2.12 (95% confidence interval 1.53 to 2.95); I2=82.0%; n=12 390), as was exposure (v no exposure) to content displaying health risk behaviours (2.43 (1.25 to 4.71); I2=98.0%; n=14 731; appendix 16, p168). Stratified analyses for time spent and exposure to health risk behaviour content generally did not show important differences by age and social media category (appendix 16, p169-171). Associations were slightly stronger for exposure to health risk behaviour content in user generated (3.21 (2.37 to 4.33)) versus marketer generated content (2.35 (1.30 to 4.22); P=0.28; appendix 16, p172). Meta-analyses for frequency of use, time spent on social media, and exposure to content displaying health risk behaviour (assessed on a continuous scale) showed similar findings (appendix 16, p173-174). On stratification (appendix 16, p175-179), for exposure to content displaying health risk behaviour, associations were larger for adolescents 16 years or older versus younger than 16 years (Std.Beta 0.35 (0.29 to 0.42) v 0.09 (0.05 to 0.13); P<0.001). The results indicated that for every one standard deviation increase in exposure to content displaying health risk behaviour, alcohol consumption increased by 0.35 standard deviation for older adolescents compared with 0.09 standard deviation for younger adolescents.

Drug use

For drug use, across all exposures investigated, 86.6% of studies (n=13/15; 53.3% low/moderate risk of bias) reported harmful associations (appendix 16, p180). The pooled odds ratio for frequent or daily use (v infrequent or non-daily) was 1.28 ((95% confidence interval 1.05 to 1.56), I2=73.2%; n=117 645) (fig 4B). Stratification showed no clear differences (appendix 16, p182-184). Few studies (n=3) assessed time spent on social media with estimates suggestive of harm (odds ratio 1.45 (95% confidence interval 0.80 to 2.64); I2=87.4%; n=7357 for ≤1 h v >1 h/day) (appendix 16, p185).

Tobacco use

For tobacco use, 88.9% (n=16/18; 50.0% low risk of bias) studies reported harmful associations of social media use (appendix 16, p 186). Frequent (v infrequent) use was associated with increased tobacco use (odds ratio 1.85 (95% confidence interval 1.49 to 2.30); I2=95.7%; n=424 326) (fig 4C), as was exposure (v no exposure) to content displaying health risk behaviours (specifically, marketer generated content) (1.79 (1.63 to 1.96); I2=0.00%; n=22 882) (appendix 16, p188). In stratified analyses (appendix 16, p189-193) for frequency of use, stronger associations were observed for low and middle income countries versus for high income countries (2.47 (1.56 to 3.91) v 1.72 (1.35 to 2.19); P=0.17), and for use of social networking sites versus for general social media (2.09 (1.72 to 2.53) v 1.48 (1.01 to 2.18; P=0.29).

Electronic nicotine delivery system use

Across all exposures investigated, 88.9% of studies (n=8/9; 77.8% low/moderate risk of bias) reported harmful associations on electronic nicotine delivery system use (appendix 16, p194). Exposure to content displaying health risk behaviour (specifically marketer generated content) (v no exposure) was associated with increased electronic nicotine delivery system use (odds ratio 1.73 (95% confidence interval 1.34 to 2.23); I2=63.4%; n=721 322) (appendix 16, p195). No clear differences were identified on stratification (appendix 16, p196-197).

Sexual risk behaviour

After excluding one study with inconsistent findings, across all exposures investigated 90.3% (n=28/31; 67.7% high risk of bias) reported harmful associations for sexual risk behaviours (appendix 16, p 198). Frequent or at all use (v infrequent or not at all) was associated with increased sexual risk behaviours (eg, sending a so-called sext, transactional sex, and inconsistent condom use) (odds ratio 1.77 (95% confidence interval 1.48 to 2.12); I2=78.1%; n=47 280) (fig 5A). Meta-regression (coefficient −0.37 (−0.70 to −0.05); P=0.03) (appendix 16, p276) and stratified analyses (appendix 16, p200-206) suggested stronger associations for younger versus older adolescents (<16 years v ≥16 years), but no moderation effects were by social media category (P=0.13) or study setting (P=0.49). Few studies assessed associations for time spent on social media (appendix 16, p207).

Fig 5
Fig 5

Forest plots for association between frequency of social media use and A) sexual risk behaviour, B) gambling, C) anti-social behaviour, and D) multiple risk behaviours. (A) Forest plot for binary exposure (frequent/at all v infrequent/not at all) and binary/continuous sexual risk behaviour outcome meta-analysis, with OR used as common metric. N=47 280. (B) Forest plot for binary exposure (frequent/at all v infrequent/not at all) and binary/continuous gambling outcome meta-analysis, with OR used as common metric. N=26 537. (C) Forest plot for binary exposure (frequent/at all v infrequent/not at all) and binary/continuous anti-social behaviour outcome meta-analysis, with OR used as common metric. N=54 993. (D) Forest plot for binary exposure (frequent/at all v infrequent/not at all) and binary/continuous multiple risk behaviours outcome meta-analysis, with OR used as common metric. N=43 571. CI=confidence interval; n=Number of study participants; OR=odds ratio; RoB=Risk of bias; SM=Social media; SNS=Social networking sites

Gambling

After excluding one study that had inconsistent findings, across all exposures investigated, all six studies investigating gambling reported harmful associations (appendix 16, p208). Frequent or at all use (v infrequent or not at all) was associated with increased gambling (not via social media) (odds ratio 2.84 (95% confidence interval 2.04 to 3.97); I2=85.6%; n=26 537) (fig 5B). On differentiation by social media category, a relatively large association was found for online gambling via social media (3.22 (2.32 to 4.49)), however, associations were not present for social networking sites and general social media (appendix 16, p211).

Anti-social behaviour

Across all exposures investigated, all 16 studies (43.8% low/moderate risk of bias) that investigated anti-social behaviour showed harmful associations (appendix 16, p212). Frequent or at all use (v infrequent or not at all) was associated with increased anti-social behaviour (eg, bullying, physical assault, and aggressive/delinquent behaviour) (odds ratio 1.73 (1.44 to 2.06); I2=93.3%; n=54 993) (fig 5C), with time spent similarly associated with increased risk (appendix 16, p214). No subgroup differences were noted (appendix 16, p215-217).

Inadequate physical activity

For inadequate physical activity, after excluding three studies with inconsistent findings, 36.4% of studies (n=4/11; 72.7% low/moderate risk of bias) reported harmful associations across all exposures investigated (appendix 16, p218). No association between time spent on social media (assessed on a continuous scale) and adolescent engagement in physical activity was seen (Std.Beta −0.00 (95% confidence interval −0.02 to 0.01); I2=59.8%; n=37 417) (appendix 16, p219), with no important differences across subgroups (appendix 16, p220-222).

Unhealthy dietary behaviour

Across all exposures investigated, all 13 studies (including four randomised controlled trials: two rated low risk of bias and two some concerns) that investigated unhealthy dietary behaviour showed harmful associations, with most at low risk of bias (61.5%) (appendix 16, p223). Exposure to health risk behaviour content (specifically marketer generated content) was associated with increased consumption of unhealthy food (odds ratio 2.48 (95% confidence interval 2.08 to 2.97); I2=0.00%; n=7892) when compared with adolescents who had no exposure (appendix 16, p224-225).

Multiple risk behaviours

For multiple risk behaviours, all nine studies showed harmful associations across all exposures investigated (appendix 16, p226). The pooled odds ratio for frequent and at all social media use (v infrequent and not at all) was 1.75 ((95% confidence interval 1.30 to 2.35); I2=97.9%; n=43 571) (fig 5D), but the few studies precluded stratification.

Sensitivity analyses

For electronic nicotine delivery system use, associations were stronger for cohort study datapoints (odds ratio 2.13 (95% confidence interval 1.72 to 2.64) v 1.43 (1.20 to 1.69) for cross-sectional datapoints; P=0.004) (appendix 16, p228) but no clear differences were seen for other outcomes (appendix 16, p229-240). Although based on few studies, for unhealthy dietary behaviour a stronger association was found for the randomised controlled trial datapoint versus for the cross-sectional datapoints (3.21 (1.63 to 6.30) v 2.48 (2.08 to 2.97); P=0.44) (appendix 16, p241).

When stratifying by adjustment for critical confounding domains, no clear differences were identified (appendix 16, p242-253), with some exceptions. Associations were stronger for unadjusted versus adjusted datapoints for exposure to content displaying health risk behaviour and alcohol use (Std.Beta 0.28 (0.14 to 0.43) v 0.07 (0.03 to 0.12); P=0.008) and for frequent (v infrequent) social media use and alcohol use (odds ratio 1.54 (95% confidence interval 1.36 to 1.78) v 1.34 (1.24 to 1.44); P=0.06) (appendix 16, p254-255).

For alcohol use, effect sizes were generally stronger for moderate and high risk of bias datapoints (v low) (appendix 16, p256-257), excluding time spent (≥2 v <2 h per day) and exposure to health risk behaviour content (v no exposure) where low (compared with moderate and high) risk of bias datapoints displayed stronger associations (appendix 16, p258-259). For drug use and sexual risk and anti-social behaviour, no differences were detectable or low/moderate risk of bias datapoints showed stronger associations (compared with high) (appendix 16, p260-264). For tobacco use and gambling, stronger associations were found for high risk of bias datapoints or no clear differences were identified (appendix 16, p265-267). No clear differences by risk of bias were observed for the remaining outcomes (appendix 16, p268-269).

When we excluded datapoints that overlapped the age range of 10-19 years, a marginal reduction in effect size (appendix 16, p270) or no important differences were noted (appendix 16, p271-274).

Publication bias

Funnel plots and Egger’s test results suggested some publication bias in the meta-analysis investigating frequent or at all social media use (v infrequent or not at all) and sexual risk behaviours (P=0.04; bias towards the null) (appendix 17). Insufficient data precluded investigation of other outcomes.

Certainty of the evidence

As frequency was the most investigated exposure, and continuous and binary exposures reported similar effects, we focused the GRADE assessment on the binary exposure of frequency of use. We report harmful effects on alcohol use with low certainty, and with drug, tobacco, electronic nicotine delivery system use, sexual risk behaviours, gambling, and multiple risk behaviours with very low certainty.

We conducted a post-hoc GRADE assessment for exposure to content displaying health risk behaviour (v no exposure) and unhealthy dietary behaviour because of the substantial difference in quality of evidence observed (four randomised controlled trials); we report moderate GRADE certainty (table 1, appendix 18).59

Table 1

Condensed summary of findings and certainty of evidence (as per GRADE)

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