How Does Social Media Affect Teens?

How does social media affect teenagers?
Like any form of technology, social media has both an upside and a downside. And when it comes to the social media effects on teens, there are significant pros and cons to take into account. On the plus side, platforms like TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat can be lifesavers for teens who feel isolated or marginalized, particularly LGBTQ teens.
However, the impact of social media on youth can be significantly detrimental to mental health. Social media use exposes teens to cyberbullying, body image issues, and tech addiction, and results in less time spent doing healthy, real-world activities. Moreover, the addictive qualities of social media can prime the brain for addiction to substances.
Key Takeaways
  • The impact of social media on youth can be significantly detrimental to mental health, exposing teens to cyberbullying, body image issues, and tech addiction
  • Some researchers theorize that the increase in social media and overall screen use between 2010 and 2015 could account for marked increases in teen depressive symptoms and suicide rates beginning in that same time period.
  • Many experts believe that the constant overstimulation of social networking shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, exacerbating disorders such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and oppositional defiant disorder.
  • Mental health treatment can help teens gain the skills and self-knowledge to heal from the underlying causes and negative consequences associated with social media overuse.

The Effect of Social Media on Teenagers’ Mental Health

Are teens and social media platforms a good mix, or does social media use lower teen well-being? Why is social media bad? This has become one of the more controversial questions regarding social media’s effects on teens, with studies showing varied results.

Positive Effects of Social Media on Teenagers

According to a report released by Common Sense Media on social media’s effects on teens, about half of the 1,500 young people surveyed said social media experiences are very important for them in order to get support and advice, feel less alone, and express their creative side, as well as for staying in touch with friends and family members. And 43 percent said that using social media makes them feel better when they are depressed, stressed, or anxious. Among LGBTQ youth, 52 percent said social media helps them feel better when they are experiencing these difficult emotions.

Negative Effects of Social Media on Teens

On the other hand, the report also showed a strong association between social media and teens feeling depressed. Youth with moderate to severe depressive symptoms were nearly twice as likely to say they used social media almost constantly: One-third of teens with depression reported constant social media use, as compared to 18 percent of young people who did not have depressive symptoms.

Furthermore, the more severe their symptoms were, the more anxious, lonely and depressed they felt after using social media. And another study found that teens who spend more than three hours or more on social media daily have an increased risk of self-harm. Clearly, social media does not help teens who are already feeling depressed and seems to contribute to their negative outlook.

Why Social Media Can Be Bad for Mental Health

Is social media part of the reason that teen depression has drastically increased over the last decade? Surveys of US adolescents show that teen depressive symptoms and suicide rates showed marked increases between 2010 and 2015, especially among females.

Some researchers theorize that the increase in social media and overall screen use between those years could account for these changes. The adolescents surveyed who spent more time on social media sites were more likely to report mental health issues. Those who spent more time on real-life activities, such as in-person social interaction, sports, exercise, homework, and print media, were less likely to report these issues.

Research on Social Media and Teen Depression

Over the last decade, this theory has been borne out by a large body of research linking teenagers’ use of social media with increased teen depression. These studies show that the frequency of a teen’s use of social media has a clear correlation to their mental health.

For example, in a 2018 study, 14- to 17-year-olds whose social media usage exceeded seven hours per day were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression, treated by a mental health professional, or taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue during the last year. This was compared to teen users who were on screens only about an hour a day.

Many experts believe that the constant overstimulation of social networking shifts the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode. As a result, this makes disorders such as ADHD, teen depression, oppositional defiant disorder, and teen anxiety worse. However, some research on social media and teen depression shows that the causality goes the other way—i.e., when teens are depressed, they look at social media more often. In one study of 600 young people, researchers found that social media use did not predict depressive symptoms, but greater depressive symptoms predicted more social media use over time.

The Top 3 Psychological Effects of Social Media on Youth

A study by researchers at University College London tracked three years of social media use by 13,000 teenagers, starting when they were 13. The teens also self-reported about their social media experiences and their mood and well-being.

After compiling the data, the study authors concluded that the social media effect on today’s youth is driven by three primary factors:

  • Inadequate sleep—teens stayed up late to continue scrolling through their social media feeds
  • Exposure to cyberbullying—having harmful, false, or private content about them posted on social media
  • Lack of physical activity—scrolling social media on their phones or other devices meant that teens sat for longer periods of time and had less time for exercise. As a result, they missed out on the beneficial impact of exercise on mental health.

According to the study, which was published in the journal Lancet, 27 percent of the teens who frequently used social media reported high psychological stress. For teens who used social media less frequently, only 17 percent reported high psychological stress.

“Some experts argue that young people’s use of social media is adding to their depression; others that their depression leaves them so uninterested in other activities that they turn to social media by default. [Our] research suggests a third possibility: that many young people who are experiencing depression— whatever the cause—are purposely and proactively using social media and other digital tools to protect and promote their own well-being.”

—Common Sense Media report

The Impact of Social Media on Youth Social Comparison

One way in which social media impacts teen mental health is through negative social comparison—what media psychologist Don Grant, PhD, Newport Director of Outpatient Services, calls “compare and despair.” Teenagers on social media spend much of their time observing the lives and images of their peers. This leads to constant comparisons, which can damage self-esteem and body image, exacerbating depression and anxiety among adolescents.

As with other types of social comparison, teens report lower self-esteem and self-evaluation and peer pressure to look a certain way when looking at their friends on social media apps. For example, this includes looking at profiles on which peers post curated images about their significant others, social events, or accomplishments. And young people felt better about themselves when they make so-called “downward comparisons”—looking at profiles of peers with fewer friends and achievements. According to a Pew Research Center report on the negative effects of social media on teenagers, 26 percent of teens say these sites make them feel worse about their own life.

The Negative Psychological Effects of Social Media on Teen Body Image

Body image is one primary area in which teen social comparison leads to negative emotions—not only for teen girls, but for all genders. When teens compare themselves to curated and filtered photographs of their peers and of celebrities, they often feel inferior. This can lead to lower self-esteem and negative body image. In addition, social media use has also been linked to a higher risk of eating disorders and disordered eating behaviors in both girls and boys.

According to a survey by Common Sense Media:

35 percent of teenagers on social media worry about being tagging in unattractive photos

27 percent are stressed out about how they look when they post pictures

22 percent feel bad about themselves when nobody comments on or “likes” their photos.

Social Media Effects on Teens: Health Hazard or Healthy Inspiration?

During the teenage years, young people are particularly susceptible to the influence of peers. Therefore, they are more vulnerable to negative influences on social media. Unfortunately, along with providing ways to seek help and support, social media also provides forums in which teens can encourage each other in unhealthy and dangerous behaviors.

For example, teens with eating disorders or those who self-harm can connect with others to talk about their self-destructive routines. In these online forums, obsessive calorie counting, fasting, or over-exercising are accepted and encouraged. As a result, young people may learn ways to hide or intensify the behavior, putting them at greater risk. And while the majority of parents believe they know what their child is posting on social media, according to a Pew Research poll, a survey of teens found that 70 percent of them are hiding their online behavior from their parents.

On the flip side, a teen social network can inspire teenagers to develop healthy habits. Thus, seeing peers eating nutritious food, doing something creative, or getting outside in nature can encourage other teens to do the same. Social networks can create peer motivation, inspiring young people to try something new, follow their dreams, and speak up about things that matter to them. Teens can also find positive role models online. Hence, the effect of social media on teenagers might actually result in more unplugged time and increased self-care behaviors.

The Negative Effects of Social Media on Teens’ Identity Formation

The impact of social media on youth extends to an important part of adolescent development: the formation of one’s unique identity. Hence, social media provides a forum for teens to practice skills related to identity development. These include self-presentation and self-disclosure—sharing their opinions, beliefs, and preferences.

In a longitudinal survey of 219 freshmen at a state university, researchers found that teens who expressed their opinions on social media experienced increased well-being. In addition, another study found that adolescents who communicated more online had greater “self-concept clarity”—a clearer idea of who they were. This self-awareness supports mental health. Furthermore, a research article on teens and social media concluded that social media gives teens the “autonomy to explore and experiment with their identities in a space of their own, where they have control over what, how, and with whom they share information.”

Friendships, Teens, and Social Media

Friendship and social skills are additional areas in which the impact of social media on youth can be positive and negative. In the Pew Research Center report, 81 percent of teens in the survey said social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives. In addition, two-thirds of teens said these platforms make them feel as if they have people who will support them through tough times.

During the pandemic, of course, social media became one of the most frequent—and sometimes the only—way in which teens could stay connected with peers. But there’s a difference between teens’ social media friends vs. their real friends: The Pew survey found that 60 percent of teens say they spend time with their friends online on a daily or nearly daily basis, but only 24 percent spent time with their friends that often in person. These stats highlight how online connections may not translate into IRL relationships.

In addition, the more time teens spend plugged in and on social media platforms, the more cyberbullying increases. A 2020 report by the organization L1ght found a 70 percent uptick in hate speech among kids and teens across communication channels on social media and popular chat forums. More time on social media provides enhanced access to both the beneficial and detrimental aspects, further driving the negative effects of social media on teenagers.

The Addictive Quality of Social Media for Teens

Scientists have found that teen social media overuse creates a stimulation pattern similar to the pattern created by other addictive behaviors. Hence, the brain responds to social media the same way it responds to other “rewards”— with a release of dopamine. These dopamine rushes are catalyzed when a teen posts something online and is met with likes, shares, and positive comments from their peers.

According to the American Psychological Association, the teen brain is wired to be “especially invested in behaviors that will help them get personalized feedback, praise, or attention from peers … Youth are especially sensitive to both positive social feedback and rejection from others.” They’re also less capable of controlling the impulse to keep scrolling, because the areas of the teen brain that control self-regulation are still immature.

Don Grant, PhD, Newport’s National Advisor of Healthy Device Management, says social media use targets our limbic system through its susceptibility to intermittent variable rewards. It’s the same basic idea behind slot machine design—looking for “likes” gets us “hooked” and coming back from more. Our brains keep seeking the dopamine hit that comes with the next post we see on our feed or the next reaction to something we’ve posted. Research also suggests that these rituals may prime the brain for other future unhealthy dependencies or addictions, Dr. Grant says.

Treatment for Teen Social Media Addiction and Its Root Causes

As the research shows, teen social media overuse is often linked with underlying issues, such as depression, chronic stress, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Hence, treatment at Newport Academy includes addressing these root causes while unplugging from phones and social media.

After just a few days, teens begin to reawaken to their IRL environment. During treatment with us, they form strong friendships, explore their inner life through journaling and meditation, spend time in nature, and experience creative offline activities. Our treatment outcomes show that this approach supports healing and reconnection with self, others, and their real-life environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does social media affect teenagers?
Social media has both negative and positive effects on teen well-being and mental health. While social media platforms can help teens feel connected and stay in touch with friends and family, they can also contribute to depression, anxiety, loneliness, and FOMO (fear of missing out).

What are five negative things social media does?
Five ways in which social media negatively impacts teenagers are:
1. Cyberbullying, when teens demean or exclude others
2. Comparing oneself to others and feeling inferior
3. Lack of sleep due to staying up late on social media
4. Reduced time doing physical activities and being outside
5. Engaging in forums in which teens encourage each other in unhealthy and dangerous behaviors, such as disordered eating and self-harm.

What impact does social media have on teenagers’ self-esteem?
Comparing themselves to their peers’ curated images can undermine teen self-esteem and body image. In addition, teens also suffer from feeling left out when they see posts about events and get-togethers they weren’t invited to. It is another method to succumb to peer pressure digitally.

Does social media cause depression, or does depression increase social media use?
The answer may be yes to both questions. Research shows that young people’s use of social media is adding to their depression. However, it’s also possible that depressed teens are uninterested in other activities and consequently overuse social media.

What are the dangers of social media for youth?
Scientists have found that teen social media overuse creates a stimulation pattern similar to the pattern created by other addictive behaviors. The brain releases dopamine when a teen posts something online and is met with likes, shares, and positive comments from their peers. This can prime the teen brain for other addictions. In addition, cyberbullying and comparing themselves to others can trigger teen depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

What are the positive and negative effects of social media on youth?
Teens can get support and advice, feel less alone, and express their creative side on social media, as well as stay in touch with friends and family members. The negative effects of social media for teens include unfavorably comparing themselves to others, cyberbullying, feelings of loneliness and being left out, and less time doing real-world activities. Research shows a link between depression and social media use.

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The Newport Academy April 17, 2024