Elina Mir, Andrea Sun, National Center for Health Research
Most adolescents and young adults use social media; 35% report using at least one social media platform “almost constantly,” and 54% say it is difficult to “give up” social media. Not surprisingly, 36% admit to spending excessive time on it, compared to 8% who report spending too little time. Given the widespread usage, this article explores the use of social media use among teens and young adults.
What are the different social media platforms and how are they used?
According to surveys, the most popular social media platforms are YouTube (95%), TikTok (67%), Instagram (62%), Snapchat(59%), and Facebook (32%).
YouTube allows users to share original videos, such as music, cooking, make-up tutorials, and vlogs (video blogs).
TikTok allows users to create 15-to-60-second short-form videos, primarily focused on entertainment and comedy but increasingly used for infotainment purposes. Influencers on TikTok attract a dedicated audience by providing brief advice, tips, and engaging in self-promotion.
Instagram offers a “stories” feature that lasts for 24 hours, in addition to sharing photos and videos that remain on a user’s profile. Unless an Instagram account is set to “private,” anyone can view posted photos and videos. Many people use Instagram as a platform for photo blogging, showcasing videos from vacations, daily life, and sharing interests in art, cooking, and other activities.
Snapchat allows users to share photos that disappear after being viewed, as well as “stories” that vanish after 24 hours. These “stories” enable users to share their experiences through videos or photos with all their followers.
Facebook allows users to share photos, videos, articles, and personal information, as well as chat with friends and more.
All of these social media platforms are used to communicate with friends and are popular sources of news and celebrity updates. an overview of the percentage of U.S. adolescents who have used each social media platform.
|Social Media Platform||% of 13-14 year olds using||% of 15-17 year olds using|
The benefits of social media
On the plus side, according to a 2022 survey, 32% of adolescents believe that social media has a mostly positive impact on their lives, compared to 9% who report mostly negative impacts. Most respondents (59%) report “neither positive nor negative”.  During adolescence, social connections with peers become increasingly important, and social media provides opportunities for such connections.  It can help young people form communities, stay in touch with friends who are not nearby, and provide them with social support. Social media can also serve as a tool for adolescents to mitigate stress, particularly for marginalized youth, such as racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities. For instance, 70% of adolescent girls of color find race-affirming content on social media platforms. The majority of teenagers report feeling more accepted (58%), supported (67%), creative (71%), and connected with friends (80%) with the help of social media content.
Additionally, there is evidence that utilizing social media and other digital platforms for mental health interventions can encourage help-seeking behaviors and act as a gateway to initiating mental health care for children and adolescents.
Can social media increase mental health problems?
Although social media can allow people to reach out and connect with others, it can also make some people feel worse. 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. It is a concern for young adults as well, since 33.7% of 18-25-year-olds report having some form of mental illness. Depression is particularly increasing among girls. 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.
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. 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.
Researchers believe that one problem is that social media use can disrupt sleep, and poor sleep can lead to anxiety and depression. 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. 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. 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. Many adolescents report sleeping with their phone and checking it constantly at night.
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.
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. 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. Looking at profiles of attractive people leads to more negative body image. 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. In 2021, leaked documents revealed that researchers at Instagram found that using the app was harmful to teen girls’ and boys’ body image. About 1 out of 3 teen girls felt worse about their bodies due to using the app, and so did 14% of boys.
Certain social media platforms also display real-time instances of self-harming behaviors, such as self-cutting, which can cause substantial bleeding and scarring. Studies indicate conversation around or displaying this content can normalize self-harming actions, including establishing suicide agreements or posting self-harm templates for others to immitate.
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. Cyberbullying is more strongly correlated with suicide attempts than face-to-face bullying.  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.
In addition, social media platforms can serve as a breeding ground for predatory actions and harmful interactions with ill-intentioned individuals who prey on children and teenagers. This includes adults exploiting children sexually, threatening or distributing intimate images for financial extortion, or illicitly selling substances like fentanyl. Adolescent girls and transgender youth are disproportionately affected by online harassment and abuse, leading to feelings of sadness, anxiety, or worry. Almost 60% of adolescent girls report having been approached by strangers on certain social media platforms in ways that made them feel uneasy.
Social media can adversely impact the critical brain development phase of adolescents aged 10 to 19. Their brain development, particularly susceptible during early adolescence, can be influenced by societal pressures, peer views, and comparisons with others who seem more attractive or popular. Frequent social media use may lead to changes in their brains, especially in areas controlling emotions and impulses, and heighten their sensitivity to social cues. This could make them more emotional and unhappy, notably in girls aged 11 to 13 and boys aged 14 to 15. Therefore, the influence of social media during this vulnerable stage is particularly important and requires further scrutiny.
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. Many parents’ busy schedules may leave 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. Several resources are 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. It is also important for adults to model good digital behavior by avoiding social media during family time, setting limits for themselves, discussing social media use with their children, and taking breaks from social media as a family to discuss the challenges and temptations associated with it openly. This way, your teen will be more likely to talk to you when there is a problem.
Be vigilant for signs of problematic social media use in your child, such as disruptions to their daily routines, prioritizing social media over in-person interactions, insufficient sleep and physical activity, persistent desire to use social media, and deceptive behavior. If you suspect any issues, have an open conversation with your child, establish new limits on social media usage, and seek guidance from a mental health professional if needed to ensure healthier engagement with the digital world. Additionally, create a safe environment for your children by regularly checking in with them about their online experiences, reassuring them that they can approach you if they encounter 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. 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 when 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.
- Reach out for help if you encounter online harassment or abuse. People you trust, such as family members, friends, teachers, or counselors, can help if you experienced any forms of online harassment and abuse. Some sites, such as gov, provide helpful information on reporting instances of cyberbullying.
- Be cautious with sharing information online, as it can be stored permanently and you will be unable to delete it. When in doubt about posting something, it is generally a good idea to refrain from doing so. Consult a family member or trusted adult to seek their opinion on whether you should proceed.
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:
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
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