Social Media and Adolescents’ and Young Adults’ Mental Health

Elina Mir, Caroline Novas & Meg Seymour, PhD, National Center for Health Research


Most adolescents and young adults use social media. With 45% of adolescents reporting that they are online “almost constantly,” and another 44% saying they are online at least several times a day,1 experts are asking if social media use can be harmful to mental health. Here’s what you need to know about social media use among teens and young adults. 

What are the different social media platforms and how are they used?

Over 40% of adolescent girls and over 20% of adolescent boys report using social media for 3 or more hours per day.2 The most popular social media platforms are Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. 

Snapchat allows users to share photos that disappear once they have been opened, as well as “stories” that disappear after 24 hours. These “stories” allow users to share their experiences with all of their followers through videos or photos. 

Instagram has an option to share “stories” for 24 hours as well, but it also allows for sharing photos or videos that stay on a user’s profile. Unless someone chooses to set their Instagram account to “private,” anyone can look at the photos and videos that are posted. Many people use Instagram as a form of photo blogging, posting videos from vacations as well as daily life, and sharing their interests in art, cooking, and other activities. 

Facebook lets users share photos, videos, and articles, information about their lives, as well as chat with friends and more. YouTube allows users to share original videos, such as music, cooking, make-up tutorials, and vlogs (video blogs). Twitter allows users to share their thoughts and personal updates in 280 characters or less, as well as share pictures. 

All of these social media platforms are used to communicate with friends and are also popular sources of news and for following what celebrities post. 

Social Media Platform % of 13-17 year olds using % of 18-24 year olds using
Snapchat 69 78
Instagram 72 71
Facebook 51 80
Twitter 32 45
Youtube 85 94

1,3

The benefits of social media

According to a 2018 survey, 31% of adolescents believe that social media has a mostly positive impact on their life.1 Adolescence is a time when connections with peers is increasingly important,4 and social media provides opportunities for social connection. It can help young people form communities, keep in touch with friends who do not live nearby, and it can provide a place to get social support.5,6 Social media can provide a valuable connection to one’s peers.

Is social media related to mental health problems?

Although social media can allow people to reach out and connect with others, it can also make some people feel worse.7 Almost 25% of adolescents believe that social media has a mostly negative effect.

With 13% of 12-17 year olds reporting depression and 32% reporting anxiety, mental illness is a concern for adolescent health.8 It is a concern for young adults as well, since 25% of 18-25 year olds report having some form of mental illness.9 Depression is particularly increasing among girls.10 Some researchers have suggested that this increase in mental illness is, at least in part, connected to the rise of social media use among adolescents and young adults.10

How might social media harm mental health? Many studies have found an association between time spent on social media as well as the number of social media platforms used, and symptoms of depression and anxiety.7,11 Most of these studies indicate that time spent on social media is correlated with depression and anxiety, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that social media causes these problems. It is unclear whether using social media leads to depression and anxiety symptoms, or if people who are already more depressed or more anxious use social media more than their peers do. However, there is research that suggests that social media use might, at least to some degree, lead to these symptoms. For example, in one study from 2020, people who deactivated their Facebook account for a month reported lower depression and anxiety, as well as increases in happiness and life satisfaction.12

Researchers believe that one problem is that social media use can disrupt sleep, and poor sleep can lead to anxiety and depression.2,13 Social media use at night disrupts sleep in a number of ways: People stay up late online, the light from the screen can disrupt one’s circadian rhythm, and many people wake up in the night in order to check or respond to messages.14 Adolescents report that they use social media at night, even when it affects their sleep. They worry that if they do not use their phone at night, they will miss out on potential social interactions online, which they believe would have a negative effect on their in-person social relationships.14 Also, adolescents report that their peers expect them to be online and available at night. There is a social norm to respond to messages quickly, and they don’t want to violate that norm by sleeping through their messages.13 Many adolescents report sleeping with their phone and checking it constantly at night.2

In fact, teens and young adults often worry about what they call FoMO, which stands for “fear of missing out,” which is anxiety about missing out on experiences. Social media can worsen feelings of FoMO, for example, if someone sees posts about a party that they were not invited to. Adolescents may be particularly vulnerable to potential negative impacts of social media because social connectedness is important for their development. Browsing social media can lead to FoMO, and the feeling of being excluded can lead to negative feelings.15

Anxiety and depression are not the only mental health problems associated with social media use. Research on adolescents has found that body image, for girls and boys, is harmed by social media use.16 Higher social media use leads to “body surveillance,” which refers to monitoring one’s own body and becoming judgmental of it. People who do more body surveillance report feeling more shame about their bodies.4 Looking at profiles of attractive people leads to more negative body image.17 There are many “fitspiration” accounts on Instagram, posting about diet and exercise in order to be thin, and it is common for people to filter or photoshop their posts on Instagram in order to remove blemishes. People compare themselves to these ideals or these edited images and feel like they do not measure up. This can cause poor body image.16

Another harmful aspect of social media is cyberbullying, which is bullying that occurs online. As many as 72% of teens say that they have been cyberbullied at some point.18 Cyberbullying is more strongly correlated with suicide attempts than is face-to-face bullying.19 Unlike bullying that takes place in-person, victims of cyberbullying cannot get away from it, it stays online, and it happens out of sight of teachers and parents. 

What can parents do?

Because children are not good at self-regulation and are susceptible to peer pressure, social media sites can be risky places to “hang out.” 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. The New York Board of Education has a resource guide to help children over the age of 13 use the internet safely and in a healthy manner.

Many parents do not know the popular social media sites and how they work. With many parents’ busy schedules, this leaves many kids unsupervised on the internet, which can lead to problems. Parental supervision is as valuable online as it is offline when it comes to instilling values and safeguards. There are a number of resources meant to help teach parents about social media sites and how they work. Connect Safely has developed “parent guides” for understanding different social media platforms. Also, Common Sense Media has a list of “red flags” to be on the lookout for when your children are using various social media platforms. 

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, that 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, your teen will be more likely to talk to you when there is a problem. 

One thing you can do is check in with your children and let them know that it is safe to come to you if they are experiencing cyberbullying. Safe Teens has developed a website with information about cyberbullying. You can read and discuss this webpage with your children. 

Another important conversation to have with your children is about how social media can affect their feelings. As noted earlier in this article, many people get depressed or have poor body image when they start comparing themselves to others and feeling like they do not measure up. When a person compares his or her whole life to the positive “highlight reels” they see other people posting, it probably seems that other people’s lives are better and easier.5 It is important to remind your children that people on social media are putting their best foot forward, and sometimes they are even posting photos that are edited in order to make themselves look better. 

Tips for managing social media use

  • Pick a time at night after which you will not check your phone, and if possible, recharge your phone in another room while you sleep.
  • 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.
  • Choose one day a week where you take a day off from social media and focus on other things.
  • 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”.
  • Set boundaries or only certain times when you can check your notifications.
  • Take a break from apps that you notice contribute to unhealthy body image or feelings of inadequacy. Instead, you can try apps meant to help you feel better about yourself, such as meditation apps.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

Ideally, how would you 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. If you find yourself experiencing anxiety and depression, it is also important to seek treatment. You can use this website in order to find a therapist in your area.

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.

The National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, education and advocacy organization that analyzes and explains the latest medical research and speaks out on policies and programs. We do not accept funding from pharmaceutical companies or medical device manufacturers. Find out how you can support us here.

 

References: 

 

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