Understanding the Impact of Social Media Usage on Teenagers' Mental Health
Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter… the popularity of social media platforms is growing every year and teenagers are leading the movement. A 2018 survey by Research Center shows that 45% of teenagers are constantly online and 97% use some kind of a social media platform. It is hard to stay away from social media in a world of non-stop messaging, daily posting, and celebrity gossip that can all be accessed by simply opening Instagram. This dopamine-inducing loop involves scrolling, liking, sharing, and everlasting procrastination, which makes it an incredibly attractive form of entertainment and communication.
Despite obvious advantages, such as ease of socializing, access to information, and opportunity for self-expression, social media has its dangers when it comes to teen mental health - and this article is all about it.
What's in This Article
What Does the Research Say?
Social media use can negatively impact mental health on a biological level and this is proven by research. Social media can induce anxiety due to unrealistic or altered imagery, online abuse, violence, or other types of content that teenagers might find distressing. Trying to cope with or process vast amounts of potentially harmful information can lead to excessive worry, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and otherwise poor health, as Huntsman Mental Health Institute states.
This recent study on Facebook shows that young women are particularly vulnerable to content that is posted online. Instagram worsened body image in one out of three girls, while 6% of teenagers who reported suicidal ideation traced it back to Instagram.
The frequency of social media usage is also linked to worsened mental health. In this study, adolescents that used social media at least seven hours a day were more than twice as likely to get diagnosed with depression later on.
It is also believed that social media makes otherwise normal teen anxiety worse than it should be due to overstimulation, which is constantly shifting teen brains into fight-or-flight mode. Not surprisingly, symptoms of conditions like ADHD, bipolar disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder tend to get worse due to social media use.
Mental health can never be perceived separately from overall physical health. Social media use often results in sleep disorders, such as insomnia. This is largely due to its addictive qualities, as it is easy to lose track of time when scrolling or watching videos online. Moreover, excessive anxiety and depressive symptoms may also contribute to sleep problems.
Being a frequent social media user might also mean leading a more sedentary lifestyle. Exercise is extremely beneficial for anxiety and stress management. Teenagers that spend most of their day on social media are not physically active, which worsens their mental and physical health. The findings of this study published by Lancet show that 27% of teens who frequently used social media reported experiencing psychological stress compared to 17% of teens who used it infrequently. This demonstrates that frequent use of social media limits the time teens spend on other activities, such as sports and hobbies.
Why teens overuse social media
To put it simply, it is incredibly addictive. On a neurobiological level, our brain perceives social media overuse patterns in a similar way to addiction. The brain releases dopamine as it sees social media use as a reward. Some triggers of dopamine release are signs of social acceptance: likes, positive comments, and shares. Other dopamine triggers include receiving new information or content, such as an entertaining online argument.
Considering that social acceptance is important to adolescents at stages of identity and self-esteem formation, it is not surprising that social media is being used to achieve these goals.
Nonetheless, social comparison becomes inevitable with social media use. Observing celebrities, influencers and models often leads to thinking that “others are living a better life” which worsens self-esteem. Moreover, young women are particularly vulnerable to body-image insecurity due to social media exposure.
Social media can be a positive tool when used in moderation. However, that is not always the case with teenagers.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America identifies excessive use as a social media anxiety disorder and lists out the following symptoms:
Stopping to check social media during a conversation
Obsessive sharing on social media feeds
Withdrawing from friends and family
Losing a sense of community
Spending at least 6 hours a day on social media
Losing interest in school, work, and other activities
Anxiety and nervousness related to the inability to access social media
Prevailing fear of missing out (FOMO)
Difficulties in real-life communication
Continuously comparing yourself to others
Feeling down and/or depressed
Some indicators of potentially dangerous social media use in teens include low self-esteem, negative body image, persisting sleep problems, experiencing cyberbullying or abuse, or engaging in online communities that promote risky behaviors i.e. eating disorders or self-harm.
It is also worth noting that frequent use of social media can lead to the emergence of mental health disorders such as depression, ADHD, disruption of mental function, and impulsive disorder all of which require professional attention.
What can be done to reduce damage
There are various approaches to combating excessive use, such as quitting social media altogether, being more present in the physical world, and regulating time spent online.
Radical measures include quitting all social media platforms and having a “detox” which can be potentially stressful and difficult to deal with due to the withdrawal effect. Some less radical measures include muting notifications, deleting certain social media apps, or restricting use.
Screen time can also be controlled in order to establish a healthy daily limit. This means establishing a daily hour limit and identifying screen-free times e.g. during meals. More importantly, teens have to learn how to self-regulate social media use by controlling what online communities they engage with and identifying potentially distressing content to avoid.
It is easy to start thinking that everything that is happening online is real and miss out on what is happening around us. That is why it is necessary for teens to have frequent interactions with family and friends, engage with their community, and generally spend more time “out there”. Positive face-to-face interactions can help in establishing healthy self-imagery and self-esteem, as they encourage teens to deal with social situations and gain real-world experience.
Mindfulness and awareness techniques help cope with overwhelming feelings and emotions that tend to arise from being on social media. Awareness helps to understand that many problems arise from social comparison and prevailing negativity that exists online. Moreover, teens need to realize that what is happening on social media is not actually real. Mindfulness practices are a great tool that can help achieve awareness, cope with feelings of anxiety through relaxation, and be present in the “now”.
Physical screen-free activities not only help to cope with anxiety, but also drag us out of the digital world into the physical one. Numerous studies show that teen mental health improves with more activity and regular exercise. Such activities can also be a great way to socialize and start feeling more comfortable in the physical world.
When it comes to experiencing cyberbullying, depressive feelings, or suicidal thoughts, it is advised to seek help from a trusted adult and/or licensed professional or contact a crisis hotline (see below).
United States Lifeline- DIAL 9-8-8
What is 988?
"The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States. The Lifeline is comprised of a national network of over 200 local crisis centers, combining custom local care and resources with national standards and best practices."
The bottom line
Social media can be a dangerous game to play, as adolescents are more vulnerable to the negative influence of social comparison, distressing news, altered imagery, and online negativity. It is important to identify warning signs and take action. Otherwise social media use can lead to devastating outcomes for teen mental health.
Most importantly though, just as social media can be negative and dangerous, it can be a platform for self-expression and communication. Approaching it with caution and understanding the warning signs is the only way to proceed responsibly.
Tatiana is a content writer, digital marketer, and activist with hopes to make a valuable contribution through her work. She writes and creates content about feminism, mental health, sustainability, and human rights. She is also an undergraduate marketing student in her final year of studies. More of her work can be found here.