According to the Child Mind Institute (CMI), many parents worry about how exposure to technology might affect toddlers’ developmentally and youth mental health. We know our preschoolers are picking up new social and cognitive skills at a stunning pace, and we do not want hours spent glued to an iPad to impede that. But adolescence is an equally important period of rapid development, and too few of us are paying attention to how our teenagers’ use of technology—much more intense and intimate than a 3-year-old playing with dad’s iPhone—is affecting them. In fact, experts worry that the social media and text messages that have become so integral to teenage life are promoting anxiety and lowering self-esteem.
Teens are masters at keeping themselves occupied in the hours after school until way past bedtime. When they are not doing their homework (and when they are) they’re online and on their phones, texting, sharing, trolling, scrolling, you name it. Of course, before everyone had an Instagram account, teens kept themselves busy, too, but they were more likely to do their chatting on the phone, or in-person when hanging out at the mall. It may have looked like a lot of aimless hanging around, but what they were doing was experimenting, trying out skills, and succeeding and failing in tons of tiny real-time interactions that kids today are missing out on. For one thing, modern teens are learning to do most of their communication while looking at a screen, not another person.
For nearly all teens in the U.S., social media is a fact of life. According to the Pew Research Center (PRC), social media is “nearly ubiquitous” in the lives of teens. From the perspective of most teens and many parents and educators, this is good news: social media benefits adolescents and teens by helping them develop communication skills, make friends, pursue areas of interest, and share thoughts and ideas.
Social Media Negative Effects on Teens
As with every technology, there is a side that is not so good. In particular, social media can have a negative impact on teens who suffer from, or are susceptible to, mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that the lifetime prevalence of any mental disorder among adolescents is 49.5%, and 22.2% of adolescents will suffer from severe mental impairment in their lifetimes. Also, young adults (age 18 to 25) have the highest incidence of mental illness of any adult age group: 25.8%, compared to 22.2% for ages 26 to 49, and 13.8% for ages 50 and up.
The three most popular social media platforms among teens are YouTube (used by 85% of teens, according to Pew Research Center (PEW)’s 2018 survey), Instagram (72%), and Snapchat (69%). The percentage of teens who report using Facebook declined to 51% in 2018 from 71%, according to a 2014-2015 teen survey.
According to a 2018 report issued by the Global Web Index (GWI), people ages 16 to 24 spent an average of three hours and one-minute using social media each day. However, research reported in the journal JAMA Psychiatry found that adolescents who use social media more than three hours per day “may be at heightened risk of youth mental health problems, particularly internalizing problems.”
Social Media Positive effects on Youth Mental Health
Social media can and does have a positive effect on children and teens, whether by teaching social skills, strengthening relationships, or just being fun. Persistent use of these social platforms can also have a negative impact, particularly on the youth mental health and well-being of young users.
The activity of young people on social media largely mirrors their lives in the physical world: children and teenagers navigate the streams of their social networks, establishing new relationships, strengthening existing ones, and sometimes minimizing or ending them. Whether online or in the real world, young people will encounter bad behavior, whether it is directed at them or at someone or something else. How they respond to bad behavior is an opportunity for them to learn important life skills.
The Pew Research Center (PEW)’s 2018 survey of U.S. teens determined that one in six teenagers have experienced at least one of six different forms of abusive behavior online:
- Name-calling (42%)
- Spreading false rumors (32%)
- Receiving unsolicited explicit images (25%)
- Having their activities and whereabouts tracked by someone other than a parent (21%)
- Someone making physical threats (16%)
- Having explicit images of them shared without their consent (7%)
The survey found that 90% of teens believe online harassment is a problem for people their age, and 63% identify it as a “major problem.” Yet, the most recent PEW survey of teenagers’ use of social media and other technology, also conducted in 2018, revealed some interesting findings. It found that only 24% of teens believe social media has a generally negative effect, while 31% say its effect is positive and 45% believe its impact is neither positive nor negative.
The teens who think social media is generally a negative influence say it increases bullying and rumor-mongering (27%), or it harms relationships and makes them less meaningful (17%). However, only a small number believe social media use could “lead to psychological issues or drama.”
Most people — young and old — are able to moderate their use of social media so it doesn’t take over their lives. However, 20% of people who have at least one social media account feel they have to check them at least once every three hours to avoid feeling anxious. This phenomenon goes beyond “fear of missing out,” or FOMO. In fact, it now has its own name: social media anxiety disorder, as reported by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
The condition is similar to social and other anxiety disorders, which the ADAA states are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S. The symptoms of a social media anxiety disorder include the following:
- Stopping to check social media in the middle of a conversation
- Spending more than six hours each day using social media
- Lying about the amount of time spent on social media
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Failing in attempts to cut back on social media use
- Neglecting or losing interest in school, work, and favorite activities
- Experiencing severe nervousness, anxiety, or withdrawal symptoms when not able to check social media
- Having an overwhelming desire to share on social media feeds
Facebook depression and Youth Mental Health
Another youth mental health disorder directly related to social media is “Facebook depression.” The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes it as follows: when adolescents and teens who spend time on social media begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression as a result of “the intensity of the online world.” Aspects of social media that contribute to Facebook depression are friend tallies, status updates, and pictures of friends enjoying themselves, all of which can make children with negative self-images feel worse about themselves.
Many potential risks of social media’s impact on youth mental health are overlooked by parents, teachers, and the young people themselves. For example, obsessive use of social media by adolescents and teens can lead to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impulsive disorder, disruption of proper mental functions, paranoia, and loneliness, according to the ADAA.
How to stop negative effects
Efforts to prevent the negative effects of young people’s use of social media begin by educating teens and adolescents about the dangers these services present. Guidelines for the safe, healthy use of social media by young people should include the following strategies.
Perhaps the single most effective way for teens and adolescents to ensure their use of social media has a positive impact on their lives is by spending less time using the services. Research published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that undergraduate students who limited their time on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 10 minutes each per day or a total of 30 minutes of use for all social media were generally more positive and had better self-images. The students who restricted their social media use to 30 minutes a day reported less depression and loneliness after three weeks, and the increase in feeling good was highest for students who reported “higher levels of depression” when the study began.
Social Composition with others
Young people naturally compare themselves with the people they interact with on social media, but doing so can be detrimental to a healthy self-image. In the journal Body Image, researchers report that undergraduate women felt worse about their own appearance after they viewed the social media page of someone they considered more attractive. The results were consistent whether the women had a positive impression of their appearance or a negative one prior to viewing the page.
This “social comparison” factor takes many forms online that can negatively affect young users of social media. To compensate for the natural tendency to compare themselves with the people they interact with online, young people need to remind themselves that social media makes people and things look better and more attractive than they are in real life.
A related tendency that teens and adolescents are especially susceptible to involves falling into a cycle of negativity that continually reinforces itself. The National Center for Health Research (NCHR) points out that young people who feel good about themselves tend to post only positive things online, which creates a positive feedback loop. Conversely, those with low self-esteem may find themselves posting only negative material, which often puts them in a negative feedback loop.
Social Media does not often reflect reality
To combat feelings of inadequacy or insecurity caused by their social media activities, teens and adolescents must be taught that what they see on social media (and elsewhere online) often does not reflect reality but rather is a biased perspective of happenings in the real world. Avoiding uncomplimentary comparisons and breaking out of the negativity trap can be as easy as taking a break from social media, and perhaps all online activity, for days at a time rather than just for an hour or two.
Teens can learn a valuable lesson about their own self-worth as a result of the emotions they feel while using social media. How we truly feel about ourselves begins from the inside and is expressed outwardly. Conversely, social media can cause us to measure our self-worth by what others think or lead us to create a false persona in an attempt to be accepted by others.
The big challenge for parents who want to ensure their children’s use of social media is positive is being aware of what their kids are doing on social media. By taking the subject of social media’s impact seriously, parents can communicate to their children the importance of abiding by usage guidelines for their health, safety, and well-being.
Parents balance the freedom they give their children with the need to monitor their activities without invading their privacy. It usually is not necessary for parents and guardians to track everything their adolescent and teenage children do on social media and elsewhere online. However, parents must watch for signs that their children’s use of social media is having negative effects on their mental health.
Note that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits web services from collecting personal information from children younger than 13 without the expressed permission of their parents. As the National Center for Health Research (NCHR) notes, age is self-reported when creating an account on social media, so underage children can simply lie about their age when they sign up.
One aspect of social media that poses a specific risk to children is messaging. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents point out to their children that any images, texts, or other material they share with one person is potentially shared with the world — and once they hit the send button, there is no way to bring it back or erase it.
Parents should instruct their children on how to apply the privacy protections in each social platform. But even the strictest privacy settings can’t protect against the negative impact of improper sharing on social media. Children must also be warned that adult predators of all types use these services in their attempts to attract and exploit children.
Creating a Family Social Media Plan
The best way to ensure children understand the rights and wrongs of social media use is to create a family social media plan. The plan will match the unique characteristics of the family, and it will state clearly what is an appropriate use of social media and what is inappropriate use. By focusing on the positive influence social media can have on all family members, parents can share the benefits of technology while balancing the advantages of engaging in non-technology activities far from wireless hotspots.
Any parent knows that children adopt many of the behaviors they see in their parents. The success of a family social media plan depends on the parents abiding by the rules as much as their children. To ensure parents are reaping the rewards of social media and avoiding the pitfalls, they must educate themselves about all aspects of these services.
The best way for parents to enforce rules about limiting screen time is by joining their children in activities in the physical world. Rather than simply turning off their children’s screen and going right back to their own, parents should take the opportunity to spend more face-to-face time with their children.
Students learn best when they are feeling good about themselves and others. Teachers have a vested interest in ensuring that their students are not subject to the negative effects of social media use. Here are three ways educators can help promote positive social media use in their students.
A common misconception is that the use of social media by young people always improves their ability to socialize in the real world. In fact, many teachers report that the opposite is true: Social media use has led to a breakdown in the ability of many students to communicate with each other in the classroom. The National Education Association (NEA) quotes an 11th grade English teacher from North Carolina who states that social media has “crippled” her students’ ability to interact with one another in person.
Because so little is known about social media’s impact on youth, teachers have to consider the role of this and other technologies on the growing prevalence of anxiety, loneliness, and depression among teenagers and adolescents. The best teachers can do is to listen to students and remind them that there are many good things in life that have nothing at all to do with social media.
Because it is so easy for young people to fall into negative feedback loops when they use social media, teachers can counter the tendency by sharing examples of social media activities that are beneficial and that make students and others feel better.
Social Media Content and Depression Symptoms
Research reported in the publication JAMA Network highlights the connection between the content adolescents view on social media or television and the increased presence of depression symptoms. The researchers pointed to social comparisons and negative reinforcements as the causes of heightened depression rather than simply the time that screen viewing takes from other activities. Teachers can help by providing students with alternative activities that emphasize person-to-person contact and physical activity.
As with any technology, there is a right way and a wrong way to bring social media into classrooms. TeachThought provides examples of social media programs whose use contributed to improvements in students’ grades and attendance. Such programs increase student engagement, teach useful life lessons and acclimate students to the do’s and don’ts of life online.
Allowing students to experience social media in a controlled setting such as a classroom helps make students aware of cyberbullying and other risks without experiencing them directly. Students learn to be aware of the dangers of the Internet in a relatively protected setting. They can also be instructed on setting time limits for use of social media and all other screens.
A recurring theme in the resources and advice about counteracting the negative impact of social media on youth mental health is to focus on the positive aspects of the technology. For parents and teachers, the challenge is to monitor children for signs of the negative effects of social media. They must also ensure that children are taught safe online practices to prevent them from becoming victims, whether by exposing their personal information or putting themselves at risk of abuse.
Health care professionals play an important role in helping parents, teachers and young people have positive and fulfilling social media experiences. Degree programs, such as the University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Public Health, are designed to provide health leaders with the skills and experience to help prevent the negative activities that contribute to mental illness in young people. Social media has the potential to contribute greatly to the lives of young people, but only if the correct steps are taken to combat the technology’s negative aspects.
This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.