Social Media and Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Mental Health

Elina Mir and Caroline Novas, National Center for Health Research


Most young adults use social media, and experts are asking if this use can harm mental health. Here’s what you need to know.

The most popular social media platforms are Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. According to the Pew Research Center, 78% of 18-24-year-olds use Snapchat, while 71% use Instagram, and 68% use Facebook. In addition, 94% of 18-24 years olds use YouTube and 45% use Twitter.1

What do social media outlets allow? How are social media platforms used?

Snapchat allows users to share photos and “stories” with their friends that disappear after 24 hours. These “stories” allow users to share their experiences with all followers through videos or photos. Instagram lets users share their life through photos or videos with a wider audience and are not temporary like Snapchat. Many people use this platform for blogging, posting videos from vacations as well as daily life, and sharing their interests in art, cooking, and other activities. Facebook lets users to share photos, videos, and articles; share information about their lives; chat with friends; and more. YouTube allows users to share original videos, such as music, cooking, make-up tutorials, and vlogs. Twitter allows users to share their thoughts and personal updates in 280 characters or less. All of these outlets are also popular sources for news as well as celebrity gossip.

The Benefits

Social media benefits adolescents by enabling them to enhance their communication skills and social connections. Social media sites and apps allow adolescents to make new friends, exchange ideas and pictures, develop new interests and experiment with new forms of self-expression. When youth use them, they can learn basic social and technical skills that are important for functioning in day-to-day society. Most adolescents use social media to build on social communication and friendships taking place at school or during sports and other activities and extend it to the online world. They are not necessarily meeting new people so much as enriching their currently existing friendships. Because of this, barring teens from social media use could potentially deprive them of valuable learning experiences and limits their social lives.

Is social media tied to mental health?

Social media has become immensely popular, and in recent years mental disorders among young adults has become more common. That doesn’t mean they are related, but the numbers are staggering and deserve attention. In 2016, an estimated of 44.7 million adults aged 18 or older in the US had a mental illness. Young adults aged 18-25 had the highest prevalence of any mental illness at 22.1% compared to adults aged 26-49 at 21.1% and aged 50 and older at 14.5%.2

“Facebook depression” is a concern resulting from children’s use of social media. A report by the American Academy of Pediatrics defines Facebook depression as “depression that develops when teens and preteens spend time on social media sites and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression due to the intensity of the online world.”3 The factors that may contribute to depression are the various measures of popularity that Facebook creates. In particular, Facebook can make kids feel inadequate due to the “in-your-face” friend tallies, status updates, and pictures of others having a good time. For well-adjusted kids, however, social media can have the opposite effect, boosting their already positive feelings about themselves.3

Why is this? As it turns out, well-adjusted children tend to put their best foot forward, broadcasting only their best attributes and qualities online. They choose what to reveal about themselves and filter or minimize negative characteristics. They are able, in other words, to promote a somewhat deceptively positive sense of self. In response, their friends’ feedback, comments, and posts tend to be overwhelmingly positive, creating a positive feedback loop. For less well-adjusted children, constantly reading about the seeming success of their Facebook “friends” can make them feel worse than in real life where, at least, their peers visibly fail from time to time. The positive spin that popular kids put on Facebook ends up widening the disconnect between how less well-adjusted or unpopular kids view others and how they view themselves. However, it is unknown whether Facebook Depression is a distinct phenomenon or an extension of depression adolescents feel in other circumstances. The American Psychiatric Association does not list Facebook Depression (or Internet addiction) in its diagnostic manual.

According to the Pew Research Center, by 2015, 73% of teens had smartphones. One psychology professor at San Diego State University discovered that teens who spend 5 or more hours a day online were 71% more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide compared to teens who spent only 1 hour a day online. This risk increases with only two or more hours spent online.4 Again, this doesn’t prove that spending time online causes suicide, but the link between time spent online and other factors linked to suicide is important to study.

The number of social media platforms used and how often they are used is related to youth mental health. A recent study found that the more social media platforms an adolescent uses, the more likely they are to have symptoms of depression and anxiety, regardless of overall time spent on social media.5

Another study looked at social media use and social isolation among U.S. young adults. The study used a nationally representative sample of 1,787 19-32-year-olds. It assessed participants’ usage of 11 social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, and Reddit. The study found that those who visited any platforms at least 58 times per week were three times more likely to feel socially isolated compared to those who used social media fewer than 9 times per week.6 The researchers concluded that young adults saw themselves as being socially isolated from their peers whether or not it was actually true. Just because they believe that they lack friends doesn’t mean that they do.  In addition to feelings of social isolation and depression, social media has also been found to be associated with self-image. A study found that greater Instagram use was associated with greater self-objection and concern about body image.7

Should Parents Be Worried?

It is obvious that not all social media sites are healthy environments for adolescents. Bullying, cliques, and sexual experimentation are just as prevalent online as offline. Because children are not good at self-regulation and are susceptible to peer pressure, social media sites can be dangerous places to “hang out.” The minimum age to access social media sites is 13 because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act prohibits websites from collecting information on children younger than 13 without parental permission. However, age is based on self-report, so children younger than 13 can simply lie about their age and open accounts.3

Most parents do not fully comprehend social networking sites. And, with many parents’ busy schedules, this leaves many kids unsupervised in the online world, which can lead to problems. Parental supervision is as valuable online as it is offline in instilling values and safeguards.

Parents should check in regularly with their children to ensure that their online behavior is appropriate. Although it is tempting to accomplish this through frequent monitoring, this can result in distrust between parent and child. Parents should talk about appropriate media use early and build a relationship of trust surrounding social media. This way, when there is a problem your teen will be more likely to talk to you. For additional information on guiding your children through the internet and social networking, visit the following websites: Common Sense Media, Connect Safely, and Safe Teens.

What Should You Do?

If you think you or your child might be using social media too much or that social media may be affecting your mental health or the health of someone you know, consider these tips:

  • Turn off your notifications for at least a few hours each day (which you can gradually increase); put your phone in “Airplane” mode or “Do Not Disturb”.
  • Delete apps that contribute to unhealthy body image or other feelings of inadequacy. Add apps that help you feel better about yourself or inspire you to engage in healthy behaviors. Meditation apps can be a better use of your time, for example: Calm, Insight Timer, and Headspace. Here is an article with more app suggestions. Use apps that block certain other apps and tell you about your usage. This will help to increase your awareness of how much you are engaging with social media and help you focus on other activities.
  • Use an alarm clock instead of relying on your phone as an alarm to prevent you from using your phone the minute you wake up.
  • Take a day off from social media to focus on other things. Sunday is a good suggestion since it is a day when you probably aren’t in school or at work.
  • Consider putting your phone in grayscale. This makes your phone less enticing to look at. With the colorful apps and notifications changed to gray, they may be easier to ignore.
  • Set boundaries or only certain times when you can check your notifications.
  • Start a habit of placing your phone near the door when you come home — doing it with a friend, partner, or family member can help you stay motivated and accountable! Make a plan with a group of friends to spend more time hanging out in person and less time interacting via social media.
  • If you are a parent wanting to learn more about how to limit your child or teenager’s social media use, check out these additional tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Looking to the Future

Consider how you would ideally like to spend your time. Ask yourself: How much time do I want to spend using social media? How can I connect with people I care about in other ways, such as talking on the phone or meeting in person?

Learn to balance your social media use and incorporate some of these tips into your life. Of course, if you are suffering from depression or anxiety seek treatment.

These articles may also provide helpful information:

Suicide Awareness and Prevention

Do Antidepressants Increase Suicide Attempts? Do They Have Other Risks?

Mood Gym: An Online Program for Adolescents to Fight Depression

Self-Injury Is Increasing in Teenage Girls: What Can Parents Do?

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

References:

  1. Smith A, Anderson M. Social Media Use in 2018. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/. Published March 1, 2018. Accessed July 16, 2018.
  2. Mental Illness. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml. Accessed July 16, 2018.
  3. O’Keefe G, Clarke-Pearson K, “Clinical Report-The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families.” Pediatrics. 2011 April; 127(4): 800-805
  4. Twenge JM, Joiner TE, Rogers ML, Martin GN. Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science. 2017;6(1):3-17. doi:10.1177/2167702617723376.
  5. Shensa A, Escobar-Vierna CG, Sidani JE, Bowman ND, Marshal MP, Primark BA. Problematic social media use and depressive symptoms among U.S. young adults: A nationally-representative study. Social Science & Medicine. 2017;182:150-157. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.03.061.
  6. Primack BA, Shensa A, Sidani JE, et al. Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2017;53(1):1-8. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2017.01.010.
  7. Fardouly J, Willburger BK, Vartanian LR. Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification: Testing mediational pathways. New Media & Society. 2017;20(4):1380-1395. doi:10.1177/1461444817694499.