Social Media and it’s Effect on Teen Mental Health

When our kids are toddlers, we worry about how tablet and tv time might affect their development. We might limit exposure with screens, or set timers for most activities. As they get older and start school, we might direct them toward more learning based games and shows, in an attempt to supplement what they’re already learning at school and at home.

But what about when they enter the teenage years, and their online interests move past just learning and entertainment? What about when screen time takes on a more “social” aspect, and they start to delve into the world of social media? What does that transition look like, and what should we know about how it impacts a teen’s development and mental health?

Adolescence is a pivotal time of development for a person; much like those formative toddler years. It’s a new period of adjustment, where children are at their most susceptible to peer pressure, anxious thoughts, and bouts of depression. Many teens are struggling with their self worth and body image, while others feel like they have something to “prove” to their classmates or family members. And unlike toddlers and younger children, a teen entertaining themselves or not being seen for hours at a time isn’t usually cause for alarm. But is it cause for concern? We believe it can be, and here’s why.

The Mayo clinic reports that a 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens (see link at bottom of this blog). But why is that? Why is social media playing such a big part in the decline of teen mental health?

One reason is simple comparison. Social media opens the door for teens to view their lives through the lens of how other’s are living theirs. Scrolling through Instagram may seem harmless, and often is. But what about for the teen girl who hates her body, and is seeing photo after photo of her friends with “better” bodies, “prettier” hair, more elaborate make up, and more fashionable clothing? Or for the young man who feels isolated and alone, but who’s social media feeds are full of classmates having fun together, hanging out at sporting events, beach days or weekend parties? Killing ten minutes online in the middle of the afternoon suddenly becomes less a method of mindless entertainment, and more sinister as dark thoughts of comparison and feeling left out creep in.

Another factor is content. What are teens posting, reading, and watching online? When keeping in mind that teens brains are not fully developed, and how often they give in to moments of impulse, they don’t always think before posting inappropriate photos, commenting things that they don’t mean, or that they later wish they could take back. But, as we all know, once something is on the internet, it’s here to stay. The addition of platforms like Snapchat, where messages and photos are meant to “disappear” after being sent, just adds to this impulsivity. reports that over half of teens using social media have given their personal information to people they don’t know, including photos and phone numbers. And 39% of teens interviewed believe hat their social media accounts and content are completely private from others, including their parents. The truth is, teens simply do not grasp or understand the reach their photos and information have once posted online.

The pressure of posting, staying on top of notifications. constantly being in contact with their followers, and scrolling through other people’s feed can also lead to poor sleep, lack of focus and concentration, and loss of interest in offline activities.

So what can be done to protect our teens, while still allowing them the use of their favorite social media platforms? While we can’t protect them completely, here are some steps that can be made to help.

  1. Limit usage. Consider allowing them to check their social media accounts once a day, for a certain time frame.
  1. Monitor their usage. Be sure to have their usernames and passwords, as well as access to the things they post, their friends, and their followers. It can be tricky to find balance between trusting them and giving them their privacy, but in the world of social media, it is always better to proceed with caution.
  1. Take phones and other devices away at night.
  2. Have “screen free” days. Be sure to set aside a day or two a week where teens are not on social media at all, giving them a break from the pressures and comparisons. While they might sulk at first, the benefits will soon become to clear to them. Many might even appreciate being able to blame their lack of online interaction on you, their parent, while being able to enjoy the downtime, as well as making real life connections, instead.
  1. Talk to your teen. Ask them about their activity online. What they’ve seen, and how they feel about it. Engage in conversations about what they enjoy about using social media, and what makes them anxious or leads to negative thoughts or feelings. Remind them that what they see on social media is not an accurate representation of real life, and that they’re not expected to emulate what they see other’s doing.

If your teen is already showing signs of being withdrawn, depressed, or is struggling with anxiety, consider that their social media use could be a factor. It’s never a bad idea to get them in to speak with a teen therapist; someone who can help them navigate the struggles and pressure, and who can help them build confidence and better self esteem based on the real world, and not what they see depicted online. If you’re worried about your teen, contact us today for a free  phone consult with Skye Stern, to see how she can help!

205 S. Hoover Blvd. Ste 202
Tampa, FL 33609
(813) 563-1155

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