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Neuropsychology

Social media break ‘can improve mental health’

A one-week break can deliver improvements in wellbeing, anxiety and depression, research reveals

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A week-long break from social media could lead to significant improvements in wellbeing, depression and anxiety, and could potentially be recommended as a way to help people manage their mental health. 

A new study has looked at the effects of taking a break from social media, which for some participants meant sacrificing up to nine hours otherwise spent on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. 

The results of the research, from the University of Bath, suggest that after just one week, these individuals saw their overall level of wellbeing improve, as well as reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Over the past 15 years, social media has revolutionised how we communicate, underscored by the huge growth the main platforms have observed. 

In the UK the number of adults using social media increased from 45 per cent in 2011 to 71 per cent in 2021. Among 16 to 44-year-olds, as many as 97 per cent of people use social media and scrolling is the most frequent online activity.

Lead researcher from Bath’s Department for Health, Dr Jeff Lambert, explains: “Scrolling social media is so ubiquitous that many of us do it almost without thinking from the moment we wake up to when we close our eyes at night.

“We know that social media usage is huge and that there are increasing concerns about its mental health effects, so with this study, we wanted to see whether simply asking people to take a week’s break could yield mental health benefits.

“Many of our participants reported positive effects from being off social media with improved mood and less anxiety overall. This suggests that even just a small break can have an impact.

“Of course, social media is a part of life and for many people, it’s an indispensable part of who they are and how they interact with others. But if you are spending hours each week scrolling and you feel it is negatively impacting you, it could be worth cutting down on your usage to see if it helps.”

For the study, the researchers randomly allocated 154 individuals aged 18 to 72 who used social media every day into either an intervention group, where they were asked to stop using all social media for one-week or a control group, where they could continue scrolling as normal. 

At the beginning of the study, baseline scores for anxiety, depression and wellbeing were taken.

Participants reported spending an average of eight hours per week on social media at the start of the study. 

One week later, the participants who were asked to take the one-week break had significant improvements in wellbeing, depression, and anxiety than those who continued to use social media, suggesting a short-term benefit.

Participants asked to take a one-week break reported using social media for an average of 21 minutes compared to an average of seven hours for those in the control group. Screen usage stats were provided to check that individuals had adhered to the break.

The team now want to build on the study to see whether taking a short break can help different populations, such as younger people or people with physical and mental health conditions, who research shows can experience adverse effects at different times.

The team also want to follow people up for longer than one week, to see if the benefits last over time. If so, in the future, they speculate that this could form part of the suite of clinical options used to help manage mental health.

Neuropsychology

Video gaming ‘can increase cognitive ability in children’

Above-average time spent on video games can lead to an increase in IQ over time, a new study reveals

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Children who spend an above-average time playing video games can increase their cognitive ability, a new study has revealed. 

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have studied how the screen habits of children correlate with how their cognitive abilities develop over time. 

While they found that watching television or being on social media had neither a positive or negative effect, video gaming increased their intelligence more than average. 

On average, the children spent 2.5 hours a day watching TV, half an hour on social media and one hour playing video games. 

The results showed that those who played more games than the average increased their intelligence between the two measurements by approximately 2.5 IQ points more than the average. No significant effect was observed, positive or negative, of TV-watching or social media.

Over 9,000 boys and girls from the United States took part in the study, which saw them perform an array of psychological tests aged nine or ten to determine their cognitive abilities. 

The children and their parents were also asked about how much time the children spent watching TV and videos, playing video games and engaging with social media.

Just over 5,000 of the children were followed up after two years, at which point they were asked to repeat the psychological tests. This enabled the researchers to study how the children’s performance on the tests varied from one testing session to the other, and to control for individual differences in the first test. 

They also controlled for genetic differences that could affect intelligence and differences that could be related to the parents’ educational background and income.

“We didn’t examine the effects of screen behaviour on physical activity, sleep, wellbeing or school performance, so we can’t say anything about that,” says Torkel Klingberg, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet. 

“But our results support the claim that screen time generally doesn’t impair children’s cognitive abilities, and that playing video games can actually help boost intelligence. This is consistent with several experimental studies of video-game playing.”

The results are also in line with recent research showing that intelligence is not a constant, but a quality that is influenced by environmental factors.

“We’ll now be studying the effects of other environmental factors and how the cognitive effects relate to childhood brain development,” says Prof Klingberg.

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Sport and exercise ‘have key role in mental health and wellbeing’

The Moving for Mental Health report highlights the role of physical activity in supporting mental resilience and recovery

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Physical activity and sport can play a key role in supporting mental health and wellbeing and helping people to recover from the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report has concluded. 

The Moving for Mental Health report includes better training for health professionals to prescribe movement as a means of effectively tackling the vast growth in people experiencing mental health issues. 

Produced following the onset of the pandemic, the report sets out evidence that developing a healthy relationship with physical activity and being involved in linked programmatic interventions and social networks is beneficial, can improve people’s mental health and wellbeing, and help tackle social isolation.

The project, by the Sport for Development Coalition and Mind, highlights how COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses of single-sector responses to addressing complex mental health problems and tackling growing health inequalities. 

The report recommends physical activity and community sport be further embedded in health policy and integrated care systems while calling for an enhanced role for experts by experience and diverse communities leading in the design, implementation and evaluation of future strategy and programming.

Launched at an online meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Sport, it is also designed to support and inspire public bodies, funders, commissioners and policy-makers as well as community-based programme providers aiming to enhance the impact of movement for mental health.

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: “While Mind’s research suggests that half of adults and young people have relied on physical activity to cope during the pandemic, we also know that physical activity levels for people with long-term health conditions, including mental health problems, have declined. 

“Considering how vital physical activity is for many people’s mental health, it is clear that we need a collective effort to reach those who need support the most.”

Andy Reed, chair of the Sport for Development Coalition, said: “This report is aimed at supporting and informing policy-makers about how we can maximise the contribution of targeted sport and physical activity-based interventions at this crucial time.”

The research was led by a team of academic researchers from Edge Hill University and Loughborough University, and draws on evidence and submissions from over 70 organisations including sport and mental health organisations, public bodies and Government departments.

Andy Smith, professor of sport and physical activity at Edge Hill University, said: “The impact of Covid-19 on people’s mental health and wellbeing cannot be overstated. 

“It has brought to light the significant mental health inequalities which existed prior to COVID-19, but which have since worsened further, especially among those living in under-served and low-income communities. 

“Our research is calling on the Government and other public bodies to invest in the provision of movement opportunities for mental health across multiple policy sectors, and to use the evidence presented as a basis for making more effective policy decisions which benefit everyone’s mental health and which tackle deep-seated inequalities.”

Moving for Mental Health is the first policy report in a series being published throughout 2022 by the Coalition and relevant partners. The reports are aimed at maximising the contribution of targeted sport-based interventions to helping ‘level up’ communities facing disadvantage and deprivation and tackling deep-seated health and societal inequalities which have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

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Fewer psychiatric beds linked to rise in prison numbers

While bed provision dropped by 93 per cent, the prison population grew by over 200 per cent, new research has found

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A 90 per cent decrease in the number of NHS psychiatric beds is linked to a trebling of the total prison population, new research has revealed.

The study found that between 1960 and 2019 the number of psychiatric beds reduced by 93 per cent. And over time, the prison population increased by 208 per cent, and the number of female prisoners more than quadrupled.

The research, from Newcastle University, is the first to analyse almost 60 years of annual data on NHS bed numbers and the prison population in England using time lag analysis.

Experts say the NHS needs to better integrate health services, social care, housing and employment support to break the link between community care and rising rates of imprisonment.

Dr Patrick Keown, honorary clinical senior lecturer at Newcastle University, said: “Our study shows that as the number of psychiatric NHS beds available was reduced, then in subsequent years we saw a growth in the size of the prison population.

“We show that cuts in the number of psychiatric beds is associated with more prisoners ten years later, and this was true for the whole period of 1960 to 2019. 

“For every 100 psychiatric beds that were closed, there were 36 more prisoners ten years later – three more female prisoners and 33 more male prisoners.

“These findings show that reductions in psychiatric beds may lead to more people being imprisoned. And this is particularly striking for the female prison population.”

The relationship between NHS psychiatric beds and prison numbers, known as the ‘Penrose hypothesis’, was first proposed in 1939 and subsequently reported in several countries.

This research found the hypothesis held true for the whole period available to study as the number of psychiatric beds fell from 201,275 to 19,389 between 1960 and 2019. Learning disability beds had the largest proportion (98 per cent) of bed closures with a reduction of 56,181. Mental illness beds reduced by 125,706 (87 per cent).

At the same time, the prison population more than trebled from 26,048 to 80,203 (208 per cent). The male prison population increased 204 per cent from 25,182 to 76,495; the female prison population increased 328 per cent from 866 to 3,708.

The research shows that the reasons behind the increase in prison numbers are complex and multi-factorial.

Dr Keown added: “It’s possible that people who would previously have been in hospital are coming into contact with the police and the criminal justice system more frequently when in the community.”

The researchers found that it was also notable that there was a very strong association between reductions in beds for people with intellectual disability and the increase in the prison population.

Dr Iain McKinnon, honorary clinical senior lecturer at Newcastle University, said: “We believe that further bed closures, especially secure beds for offenders including those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the proposed changes to mental health legislation should be very carefully considered. 

“This is particularly in the light of the potential criminalisation of those with mental health disorders, including mild learning disability or borderline intellectual functioning.”

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