Teens today are as social online as they are offline, if not more so – but how does social media affect teens’ mental health?
There is no question as to the importance of the Internet in our modern world. Especially with the dawn of the smartphone – effectively a handheld computer – most Americans have become reachable at virtually any point, through a variety of channels. Yet few people fully appreciate the degree to which the digital world has successfully integrated itself into our social lives, to the point that, for many children and teens, it often replaces other classic social surroundings such as libraries, cafes, bookstores, and parks.
In fact, researchers state that even certain markers for civic engagement are on the decline. People seem less involved with their local communities than perhaps ever before.
It’s not all bad, though. The Internet has enabled smaller, fragmented communities to reach out to one another across state and national borders. Never has communication between individuals been so seamless, or so widespread. For teens today, that means meeting people from different cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds, and having unique and enriching experiences via social media, and other forms of online communication. When used properly, social media platforms can and do enable teens to have healthy social interactions with people from all walks of life.
But how does the ability to connect to nearly everyone and everything – and view a nearly endless stream of media and information in the process – impact mental health?
How Does Social Media Affect Teens Mental Health?
Teens today are reporting higher rates of depression, anxiety, and ADHD, among other mental health issues that are steadily increasing. More than 4 in 10 students expressed that they felt persistently hopeless in 2021, and up to 1 in 5 students seriously considered attempting suicide. Some researchers have been calling it a mental health crisis, or a teen mental health epidemic for years.
Are teens today more willing to admit to mental health issues than previous generations? Probably. Just as rates of mental health problems have been on the rise, so too has the public’s understanding and awareness of issues like depression and anxiety, and the general public’s willingness to recognize a depressive disorder or anxiety disorder as a medical condition, rather than a personal fault.
Yet destigmatization isn’t the only reason that teens today seem more affected by mental health issues. Increases in suicide and suicidal ideation cannot be explained by a greater willingness to discuss mental health issues. While social, economic, and academic pressures for today’s teens are notable, previous generations had their fair share of economic and social issues as well, and studies show that teens today spend on average less time studying and doing schoolwork than in the 1990s.
The most common outlier, then, is modern technology. Does that mean the smartphone, the Internet, or social media specifically are causing an epidemic in teen mental health issues? Not necessarily – but research does suggest that excessive use of social media platforms can be an exacerbating risk factor for teens who were already at risk of conditions like depression or anxiety.
Is Your Teen Using Social Media Responsibly?
Social media platforms are built to show us what we want – or at least, what we are most likely to engage with. This content is not always positive, and for many teens at a particularly vulnerable stage in their personal development, it can be formative in a negative way.
Even social media giants like Meta silently acknowledged the potential impact of their algorithms on teen mental health, such as negatively affecting young girls’ self-esteem and even contributing to rates of eating disorders and depression as a result of how platforms like Instagram recommend potentially harmful or triggering content to teens.
In the same way a slew of advertisements, Hollywood movies, and beauty magazines might promote a single beauty standard that not all teens can relate to, social media can promote harmful trends through its content algorithm, which prioritizes popularity and contentiousness (i.e., user engagement) over the quality or potential harm and impact of the content on the end user.
Some researchers have also found a link between the amount of time teens spend on social media, and the impact it might have on them. But that doesn’t mean that there is a definitive amount of screen time that every teen should or must limit themselves to for a positive or healthy self-image.
Is Social Media Harmful to Teens?
It’s important to temper these findings with the understanding that not all teens are negatively affected by social media. While a staggering 95 percent of teens have spent some time on YouTube, only about one in five teens say that they use the YouTube app “constantly”. TikTok, which has seen massive growth in recent years, has been visited by at least 67 percent of teens, but only 16 percent visit the app every day.
There’s no research that specifically asks whether teens who use these platforms every day are also at an increased risk of developing mental health issues, nor does the correlation mean that platforms like YouTube and TikTok are causing mental health problems. In many cases, it’s important to consider other risk factors, or look at the individual context.
At what point does spending time on a social media platform stop being conducive towards personal development and quenching a natural curiosity, and become indicative of something more pathological? The line is probably drawn somewhere else for every person. Consider what your teen does with their time, and whether they seem fulfilled, or happy. Social media offers teens the opportunity to spend time with their friends or meet new people virtually – as well as consume content produced all over the world.
Are these teens spending more time online than their peers because of social anxiety issues? Are they uncomfortable with meeting people outside, or do they view platforms like YouTube as a virtual escape?
If you’re worried about your teen’s mental health, or the wellbeing of a friend or close loved one, then it’s important to take action. Whether or not their social media use plays a role in their behavior or symptoms, consider talking with a professional. We at Visions specialize in helping teens through our teen mental health treatment programs, for a variety of conditions, including major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and trauma disorders.