Is Your Teen’s Social Media Use Dangerous?
Social media and its mental health impact on teens is of great concern, especially in light of the youth mental health crisis and recent studies on the detriments of Instagram, Facebook, and others. Research has not established a causal link between social media use and negative mental health outcomes, however it has found positive and negative effects that both parents and adolescents should understand and consider carefully.
Does social media harm teens? The answer is complicated.
Alarming news reports and research on social media are common — and understandably troubling to caregivers and professionals — today. One recent study found that teens who reported spending more than 3 hours a day on social media may face an elevated risk for mental health problems compared to teens who used no social media.1 Instagram’s internal study found that its app worsens mental health in teen girls.2 And that platform is one of several that have been hit with lawsuits claiming harm to youth.3 4 5
However, that is not the full story. While some studies have documented associations between social media use and negative mental health outcomes, others have found no correlations, or even positive mental health associations, like increased sense of community (especially for marginalized groups) and stronger social connections.6 7 In fact, research at large has not established a causal link between social media use and negative mental health outcomes.
Digital media, social media, and other technologies are unavoidable. So what are parents and teens to do? From my perspective, based on research I’ve completed over the last 15 years, quality matters much more than quantity when considering the effects of social media and other digital technologies on youth. Individual personalities matter, too. What’s more, parents absolutely play an important role in shaping how their teens navigate social media and what they get from their online experiences.
What We Know About Social Media Use Among Teens
According to a Pew Research Center survey:8
- 95% of U.S. teens have access to a smartphone.
- Most teens use social media, and 35% say they use at least one of the top online platforms – YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook – “almost constantly.”
- 55% of teens say the amount of time they spend on social media is “about right.”
The pandemic changed social technology behaviors among adolescents, with teens reporting spending more time checking social media than they did before the pandemic.9
Not All Social Media Users and Experiences Are Equal
Individual experiences and circumstances, including existing mental health problems, may influence social media’s effects and explain its associations with certain mental health outcomes among youth. That’s another way of saying that researchers are still trying to determine which comes first: mental health issues or social media use.
Take teens, social media, and body image. About 20% of teens report feeling down about their body image after going on social media.10 Teen girls, however, are significantly more likely than teen boys to experience social media-related body dissatisfaction. In all, teens who experience body dissatisfaction related to social media use are also more likely to have depressive symptoms, online social anxiety, difficulty making new friends, and a tendency to spend free time alone. Still, this cross-sectional study does not tell us if the teens had pre-existing body image issues, or if social media caused these problems.
Neurodivergent people, especially those with the focus and self-regulation challenges associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), could have a harder time regulating their emotions and unplugging from screens. This may help explain why some studies show an association between ADHD symptoms and digital media use/screen time.11 Some individuals with ADHD may engage in gaming, for example, to cope with negative thoughts.12 In addition, the sleep disturbances associated with ADHD may also influence — or be influenced by — screen time.
Many Teens Say Their Online Interactions Are Primarily Positive
Most teens say that social media better connects them to their friends’ lives and feelings, and they report positive feelings associated with social media use.13 That’s in contrast to about a quarter of teens who say that social media makes them feel worse about their own lives, either by a little or a lot.13
Youth Feel the Pressure of Social Obligations
Youth today will invariably navigate friendships through social media, which comes with its own set of rules and standards. Through “likes,” comments, and other engagements, teens report feeling pressured to keep up with friends’ social media posts.7 Features within certain apps take advantage of this pressure to keep users hooked. One example is Snapstreaks, a feature on Snapchat that measures how many days in a row a user and a friend have sent Snaps (videos or images) to one another.
It’s not uncommon for personal networks to grow quite large — and even include people or accounts teens don’t know well in person — on social media. (For many tweens and teens, turning down a friend request or hitting the unfollow button is a non-starter.) That said, the larger a user’s personal network of social relations, the more time they spend attending to social obligations and managing their profiles.14 The more time spent on social media, the greater the chances of being exposed to ads and other content – some of which may not be for the best.
Social comparison is a normative aspect of adolescent development, and it happens equally in school hallways and online. As teens scroll their feeds, they’re trying to figure out who they are in relation to what they see – whether they’re smart enough, beautiful enough, tall enough, funny enough, and so on. It’s common for teens to “lurk,” or passively observe posts without interaction (e.g., “liking”, commenting) — a practice of comparison associated with social anxiety, envy, and low self-esteem.15 16 At the same time, some comparison via social media may allow teens to learn about and relate to others in productive, positive ways.9
How to Approach Your Teen’s Technology Use and Social Media Habits
1. Watch for Warning Signs
Many parents wonder whether their child is “addicted” to social media. No consensus exists on what constitutes problematic social media use, but many researchers rely on a tool developed to screen for problematic and risky Internet use that asks the following questions: How often do you…
- …experience increased social anxiety due to your Internet use?
- …feel withdrawal when away from the Internet?
- …lose motivation to do other things that need to get done because of the Internet?
In addition to the above, consider the following questions to help you understand social media’s effect on your teen: Does your child…
- …get extremely upset or violent when asked to get off their device?
- …skip their daily tasks (eating, homework, extracurriculars, bedtime) because they prefer to be on social media?
- …feel like they can’t have normal interactions without the Internet?
If you are unsure how to decipher your teen’s emotions and behaviors, a therapist can help you understand what is inside and outside the bounds of typical adolescent development, as well as the possible impact of any existing conditions, like ADHD.
2. Understand Your Teen’s Motivations
What does your child actually do online? You don’t have to know all the answers, but understanding the quality of the content your teen consumes is much more important than an exact count of the quantity.
Your teen might be engaged in healthy conversation about homework and school, for example, while online gaming with friends.
It also helps to experience for yourself the platforms and apps your teen is using to understand the attraction. You may be able to find your child’s profile, too, and get a sense of what they do.
3. Pay Attention to Your Child’s Interactions
How many people/accounts does your child follow? How many friends do they have on each? Do they follow lots of celebrities (which is associated with increased likelihood of having depressive symptoms and online social anxiety)?10 No specific number should raise concerns, but following hundreds of accounts should raise questions. Remember that large networks may mean more social obligations, which may make your teen more likely to check social media frequently and experience anxiety over keeping up with friends and “performing” friendship.7
4. Have Ongoing Conversations About Online Experiences
Whether your adolescent just got a smartphone or has been on social media for a while, talking about online experiences can help them be mindful of their social media use and its effects on them. (If you don’t feel comfortable having these conversations with your child, ask another family member for help.)
- Just as you ask your child about their friends and acquaintances IRL, be curious about online friends and happenings.
- Try co-viewing your child’s social media feed, especially if they start feeling negatively about what they’re seeing. Your child might be able to point out what kinds of posts are causing their dissatisfaction. It’s OK to teach and reassure your child to unfollow, hide, or unfriend accounts and people that don’t make them feel good.
- Teens want privacy, and that’s OK. Older teens especially may have a “clean” profile for family members, schools, and future employers to see, and a second, private account where they can show their authentic selves to friends. Usually, these second accounts are innocent and silly, so don’t assume the worst.
- Check your reactions. Avoid judgmental, disproportionate responses when your child comes to you with a social media-related issue. Often, tweens and teens will keep things to themselves, afraid that their parents will tell them to deactivate their social media profiles or take away their devices altogether at the first hint of a problem. Should an issue come up, approach with curiosity and collaborate with your teen on a solution.
Social Media and Mental Health in Teens: Next Steps
- Free Download: Too Much Screen Time? How to Regulate Your Teen’s Devices
- Read: “Did I Really Just Post That?!” The Social Media Guide for Teens
- Read: Compare & Despair – Social Media & Mental Health Concerns in Teens with ADHD
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude Mental Health Out Loud episode titled, “The Mental Health Fallout from Social Media Use” [Video Replay and Podcast #416] with Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on August 16, 2022.
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