How does social media affect teenagers? Understanding the mental health impact — and why it's not all bad
Social mediause may expose teens to peer pressure, cyberbullying, and increased mental healthrisk.
- But, social media can also connect isolated teens and help them find supportive networks.
Social media use and screen time in general has risen sharply among teens and tweens, with teens saying they spend almost an hour and a half a day on social media, according to 2021 survey results from Common Sense Media.
At the same time, mental
Could there be a connection?
While research has found that social media can negatively impact teenagers, there are many positive effects, as well.
Here's what experts say about how social media is affecting teens.
The negative effects of social media
Teenagers' brains are still developing, making them especially vulnerable to the detrimental aspects of social media. Here are four ways that social media might affect teens negatively:
1. Mental health
Studies have suggested that some teenagers are losing sleep due to social media use at night, and some are more distracted from it during the school day. Lack of sleep can contribute to poor school performance and even increase the risk of developing mental health issues.
"While we can't say anything yet about direct causation, we are seeing strong negative correlations in a few areas," says Neha Chaudhary, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. Chaudhary says social media may be tied to depression, lowered self-esteem, and loneliness.
In fact, a large 2019 study found that young people who spend more than three hours on social media may have a higher risk of internalizing mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety.
A large 2022 study shed light on which ages are most susceptible to the harms associated with social media. Here's what they found:
- Young women seemed most sensitive to social media between ages 11 and 13, when an increase in social media use was followed by a decrease in life satisfaction a year later.
- Males were more likely to have this experience around 14 or 15.
- Both genders had an increase in sensitivity to social media around age 19.
- Decreases in life satisfaction were followed by increases in social media use, pointing to it as a possible coping mechanism.
But research is mixed over whether social media use is directly related to an increased risk of mental health issues. For example, one 2021 study focusing on 8th and 10th grade students found that social media was not a cause of depressive symptoms in teens, except in girls who already had a low risk of depression.
2. Body image
Research has found a correlation between social media and having a negative body image. Social media can harbor an environment where it's easy for teens to compare themselves to the often edited and perfected photos of peers, celebrities, or influencers.
Linda Charmaraman, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and director of the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab, found that 21% of teens "felt down" about themselves after looking at social media.
More than half of those teens reported that the feeling was related to their bodies.
Charmaraman says groups who were particularly vulnerable to this were women, those with large online peer networks, those who checked their social media frequently, and those who followed celebrities.
Those feelings don't end after the teenage years. In a small 2019 study of undergraduate college women, participants who looked at or engaged with an attractive female peer on social media were more likely to experience an increase in negative feelings around their body image than subjects who engaged with a family member's social media.
3. Peer pressure
Peer pressure for teenagers is nothing new. However, social media worsens this pressure because teens are exposed to and getting feedback from many more people than they would encounter in daily life.
Teens can be especially influenced by "likes" on social media sites like
In a small 2016 study of teenage participants, researchers created a social media feed similar to Instagram and measured the teens' brain responses. Here's what they found:
- Teens were more likely to "like" photos that already had a large number of likes.
- Teens' brain activity — specifically areas associated with reward processing and attention — was greater when viewing photos with more "likes."
- This was true whether the photo depicted risky behavior (such as a peer holding a cannabis cigarette) or not.
These results indicate that teens learn from the social cues of their peers online and take note when they are rewarded with "likes" and attention.
Chaudhary says that social media opens the door for teens to compare themselves to their peers and deprioritize communicating in-person. "What's more is, from a mental health perspective, social media has introduced new risks: teens can now harm or be harmed by others online."
According to Chaudhary, teens on social media are more apt to say something negative or mean.
According to a 2018 Pew Research survey. 59% of teens in the United States have experienced cyberbullying. A 2019 study of college students found that experiencing cyberbullying may be tied to increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation.
Social media use can still be positive
However, according to the Pew survey, 31% of teens say that social media use has a "mostly positive" impact on their lives, while only 24% say "mostly negative." The other 45% said that social media's effect was neither positive nor negative.
"Social media usage can certainly have positive effects, such as a sense of social connectivity and belonging, personal contentment and self-esteem, emotional expression and control, and identity development," Charmaraman says.
In fact, more than half of teens in Charmaraman's study reported giving and receiving emotional support online.
This can be especially important for teens who have an illness, are navigating their LGBTQ+ identity, or dealing with other experiences that might be isolating.
How parents can help teenagers navigate social media
Setting limitations can help your teen learn to use social media positively without suffering from the negative associations.
"Just like you wouldn't give your child the keys to a car for the first time and let them drive away without any practice, you'll need to be there to teach them how to use social media in a healthy way," Charmaraman says. "Together, you can set rules and shared expectations that promote your teen's autonomy while safeguarding them from risks."
Research has found that parental monitoring is tied to less problematic behaviors, like social media addiction or bullying others online.
Here are a few ways that parents can help their kids foster a healthy relationship with social media:
- Restrict access to social media, for example, by setting curfews or time limits on social teens' media usage. A small 2018 study of college students found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes per day can boost well-being.
- Monitor social media behavior, by following teens' social media accounts or asking for access.
- Communicate openly about expectations around social media. For example, discuss the impact of cyberbullying, and encourage teens to never say something online that they wouldn't say in person.
- Encourage breaks, even for a short period. A 2022 study found that taking a one week break from social media was enough to improve well-being and reduce depression and anxiety.
If parents are concerned about their teens' social media use, they should talk with them about how social media is making them feel, Chaudhary says. In addition, it's important that parents model these best practices in their own social media use.
As teens' social media use continues to increase, so do rates of mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Research has shown that social media can interfere with sleep and that more time spent on social media sites is associated with an increased risk of some mental health disorders. Social media can also serve as a vehicle for peer pressure and cyberbullying.
However, social media isn't all bad. It allows teens a space to form their own identity and find support from online communities.
Parents can help their teens foster a healthy relationship with social media by communicating openly about the harms and benefits. They can also set time limits and encourage breaks to keep teens from spending an unhealthy amount of time online.
If you're very concerned about your teen's social media use, seek guidance from a mental health professional.
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