Can Social Media Really Cause Mental Health Problems in Teens?
What You Need To Know to Keep Your Teens Safe
It was hard enough back in the ‘80s and ‘90s to navigate being a teenager. You’ve seen “The Breakfast Club,” “Clueless,” “Heathers,” and “Mean Girls,” right? Teenagers in the age of social media, though, face challenges we couldn’t possibly imagine back then. Bullying takes on a whole new meaning when the bullies can get to you at home on your tablet 24/7. Just trying to fit in in the digital world can be a full-time job.
All those new challenges have had a profound effect on teens. Research has shown that kids who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at heightened risk of mental health issues like internalizing problems.1 Further, within an hour of using social media, many teens are already craving more connections and stimuli.2
These are serious, sobering facts, and they deserve a serious response. So, we want to talk about some of the specific risks to teens’ mental health and what you can do to minimize them. Because here’s another important fact: Young people are the future, and it’s up to all of us to make sure that future stays bright.
What Are the Social Media Risks to Teen Mental Health?
There’s a reason we have so many laws to protect kids. They’re the most vulnerable among us. That’s true in a practical sense. Obviously, they’re smaller and weaker than adults. It’s true in a more fundamental sense, too; teens are still growing and developing. Their brains are still forming, and that means the damage social media can do can be more profound and more permanent than it is for adults.
So just what are the risks social media poses to their mental health? To answer that question, we have to consider how social media works.
The most important aspect of social media is the “social” part. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are all about interacting with others. It turns out, social interaction is vital to a teen’s development. It’s the primary mechanism through which children learn. In fact, a teen’s brain is actually wired to need social interaction.
The problem is in how this particular type of social interaction works. It isn’t about finding others like you, who want to build communities and receive emotional support from those communities. Instead, it is focused on metrics — how much traffic your profile generates and how many likes your posts receive. The pressure teens feel to be popular has always been enormous. Social media increases that pressure exponentially. Social media makes popularity quantifiable and turns it into a literal competition, one that young people will do anything to win.
In the midst of all this pressure, teens still in the process of forming their identities mold themselves to fit a particular social norm, rather than learning to accept who they are. At best, they create fake identities to attract more traffic. At worst, they never learn how to establish a true fundamental identity.
Social Media Anxiety
The desire for acceptance, coupled with a situation in which true acceptance never quite arrives, ultimately creates anxiety. As early as 2004, psychologists identified a social media phenomenon known as Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), which, in many people, drives a compulsion to build more and more social connections.3 More recently, groups like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America have begun to use the phrase Social Media Disorder.
Again, this kind of anxiety can affect anyone, but teens are particularly susceptible because their brains are wired to need socialization. At the same time, because their brains are developing, the effects of social media anxiety can be far deeper and more long-lasting than they are on adults.
FYI: FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, involves two processes: the perception that you’re missing out and a compulsive need to maintain social connections.
Loss of Self-Esteem
By its nature, social media creates what some researchers have called a “culture of comparison.” Social media isn’t simply about socializing in any true sense, but rather about posting about yourself and looking at what others post about themselves. In short, it’s about continually comparing ourselves to others. With that in mind, what we post is carefully curated. We don’t just write anything that comes to our minds or put up just any sort of pictures. We choose those things we think will put us in the best light.
Beyond the stress that a culture of comparison can create in and of itself, it also produces an artificial reality where everyone we see online seems to be living perfect lives. Everyone looks their best, and everything they say seems witty and urbane. This situation can pose a real threat to a teen’s fragile self-esteem. If no one else on Instagram ever seems troubled by acne, how do you feel when you wake up with a pimple?
At its most extreme, the culture of comparison can result in bullying. Cyberbullying can be especially dangerous, given that mean posts can reach a wide audience and linger in the digital world forever. Teens who still lack a strong sense of self easily buy into such criticisms.
There’s another factor at work, as well: The teen brain doesn’t reason well from predicted consequences. That is, teens have a hard time making decisions based on what might happen as a result of those decisions. This is an evolutionary trick meant to encourage young people to take risks – it actually helps them learn more quickly than the rest of us. A kid who has been bullied, though, and who spirals into depression as a result, may be tempted to take extreme measures to handle these negative feelings without thinking through all the consequences.
Less Obvious Effects
Finally, social media affects mental health in a whole host of other ways, and the effects are typically heightened in teens and young adults.
- Addiction: Research has shown that the brain releases dopamine in response to social media stimulation, the same as it does when we drink, smoke, or gamble. Teen brains are particularly susceptible to the effects of dopamine and can quickly develop a need for whatever increases the levels of this chemical.
- Sleep Loss: Many teens are on social media all day long, including during the hours before bed. Screen time interferes with the body’s production of melatonin, a chemical that helps regulate sleep. Thus, teens on Facebook in the evening are at heightened risk of sleep loss.
- Weight Gain: Sleep loss has been associated with weight gain. In addition, teens who spend long periods online tend to eat more because their brains stop sending signals to their bodies that they are full. Weight gain, of course, can ultimately lead to increased levels of stress.
- Shrinking Attention Spans: Social media offers continual rewards. Every time we log on, there’s a new post to look at or a new response to our own posts. This has had the effect of making us less patient, generally, as a society and more stressed when we do have to wait.
It’s Not All Bad
While social media can be dangerous for teens, it can also deliver some real positives if it’s used appropriately.
- Access to a wider world: The internet allows teens to explore a wider world. They can have a wider variety of experiences, increasing both the depth and breadth of learning.
- Access to more information: Greater access to more information means teens can find answers to questions. It also encourages them to take control and ownership of their own learning. When they learn more, they can mature more quickly and have a better chance of making smart, healthy decisions.
- Greater social interaction: Teens develop strong and lasting relationships online. It can be easier to make friends online, and these relationships don’t have to end just because someone moves or goes off to college.
- Greater social interaction: The nature of social media also helps to undercut some barriers to social interaction. Online, teens are more likely to develop friendships with those who are different from them.
Digging Deeper: According to a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of teens say social media reassures them that they have people to support them during tough times, and 58 percent say social media helps them feel more accepted.4
If it’s clear that social media can have both positive and negative effects on our children, the real question becomes how we ensure they have access to the positives while avoiding the negatives. Here are just a few tips for helping your children successfully navigate social media.
- Check out apps for yourself: If your teen is using a specific social media platform, set up your own account and try it out. Not only will this help you better understand what the dangers might be, but it will help build common ground between you and your teen.
- Have honest conversations: Once you’ve built a little common ground with your teen, put it to use by talking with them about the dangers of social media. Be honest. Explain why what they do online matters and what effects their digital lives can have on their real lives. And listen. It’s important you understand how they experience social media if you’re going to steer them in positive directions.
- Model good behaviors: Make sure you aren’t letting social media rule your own life. If you’re constantly on your phone when your kids are trying to talk to you, they’ll quickly decide that the online world must have advantages the real world can’t match.
- Set limits: Remember that you’re the parent. You can decide just when and how your teen is accessing social media. Set time limits, for instance. Make sure your kids use social media in a common area where you can keep an eye on them. And make rules that keep them offline in the evening before bed.
Finally, while you’re helping keep them healthy, you can also keep them safe while they’re online.
- Install a VPN: A strong VPN encrypts your child’s connection to the internet and assigns them an anonymous IP address so no one can track where they’re going online. VPNs are especially important when teens are out and about and connecting to public Wi-Fi.
- Install an Antivirus: Malware on a phone, tablet, or computer isn’t just a frustration. It can be used to track users, steal passwords, and even steal personal images and videos and hold them for ransom. The best antivirus software guarantees nothing gets onto your kids’ devices.
The world is changing, and we have to change with it. Simply put, it’s just not possible to keep your kids away from social media anymore. That doesn’t mean, though, that you should just point them in the direction of the nearest browser and let them go at it. There are real dangers in the digital world and not just external dangers. Using social media can have direct effects on a young person’s mental health.
So, what do you do? Well, you wouldn’t let your kids teach themselves how to drive. In the same way, you shouldn’t let your kids teach themselves how to use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It’s your job to show them how to access social media appropriately, how to develop good habits, and how to set their own limits. If you can do that, you can ensure their future is bright and that they’re in control of technology, rather than the other way around.
JAMA Psychiatry. (2019). Associations Between Time Spent Using Social Media and Internalizing and Externalizing Problems Among US Youth.
APA PsychNet. (2023). Momentary links between adolescents’ social media use and social experiences and motivations: Individual differences by peer susceptibility.
National Library of Medicine. (2021). Fear of missing out: A brief overview of origin, theoretical underpinnings and relationship with mental health.
Pew Research. (2022). Connection, Creativity and Drama: Teen Life on Social Media in 2022.