Compared with those who use it sparingly, young adults who frequently check social media accounts tend to have worse sleep.
The research, supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania, is published in the journal Preventive Medicine.
Social media (SM) use is rapidly increasing. According to the Pew Research Center - a self-described "nonpartisan fact tank" in Washington, DC, that looks into the "issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world" - nearly 65% of adults in the US use social networking sites.
Young adults aged 18-29, however, are the largest social media group; 90% of people in this age group use some form of social media.
Although many factors feed into sleep disturbance in young adults, little is known about social media and its association with sleep disturbance. As such, the team investigated this connection in 2014, by sampling 1,788 adults in the US aged 19-32.
Participants used social media an average of 61 minutes per day
Jessica C. Levenson, PhD, from the university's Department of Psychiatry, and colleagues used questionnaires to determine the study participants' social media use, and they made use of an established measurement system to study sleep disturbances.
The 11 most popular social media platforms in 2014 were noted on the survey: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.
The team found that participants used social media an average of 61 minutes per day and visited their accounts around 30 times per week. Additionally, nearly 30% of the participants had sleep disturbance levels that were characterized as high.
Results showed that the participants who reported checking their social media accounts the most during the week had three times the likelihood of experiencing sleep disturbances, compared with those who checked their accounts the least.
Additionally, the participants who spent the most time on social media each day had twice the likelihood of experiencing sleep disturbances, compared with those who spent less time cruising their accounts.
Levenson says their research is the first to show that using social media can impact our sleep. "And it uniquely examines the association between social media use and sleep among young adults who are, arguably, the first generation to grow up with social media," she adds.
Important implications for health, well-being of young adults
The researchers say the results of their study may suggest that how often we use social media could be a better predictor of sleep disturbances than how long we use it.
"If this is the case," Levenson says, "then interventions that counter obsessive 'checking' behavior may be most effective."
As with many studies, however, correlation does not equal causation, and the researchers caution that further study is needed to flesh out whether social media use contributes to sleep disturbance, or vice versa, or both.
Commenting on this point, Dr. Brian A. Primack, director of the university's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, says:
"It also may be that both of these hypotheses are true. Difficulty sleeping may lead to increased use of social media, which may in turn lead to more problems sleeping. This cycle may be particularly problematic with social media because many forms involve interactive screen time that is stimulating and rewarding and, therefore, potentially detrimental to sleep."
The team concludes their study by noting that the "strong association between SM use and sleep disturbance has important clinical implications for the health and well-being of young adults. Future work should aim to assess directionality and to better understand the influence of contextual factors associated with SM use."
In 2015, Medical News Today reported on a study that suggested heavy Facebook use is linked to depressive symptoms.