Not My Teen: The Impact of Social Media on Teens’ Mental Health

By Stop Medicine Abuse Posted November 10, 2016 under Not My Teen

Every month, we keep you informed on the latest studies and research in our “Not My Teen” blog series. Today, we’re looking at several studies which examine how excessive social media use can impact teenage mental health.

Today’s teenagers spend more time behind screens than ever before and social networks are now regular modes of communication, expression and affirmation. A recent Huffington Post article explored how this constant connection influences teens’ physical, mental and psychological health, and looked to several studies for answers.

In a study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, nearly 50% of teens qualified as “heavy users,” meaning that they spend a minimum of two hours on social media every day. These two hours do not include time spent online for homework, texting, playing video games or watching TV.

According to the study, the amount of time teenagers spent online negatively correlated with their self-reported mental health. Heavy users of social media were more likely to rate their mental health as “fair” or “poor” than occasional users of social media. A separate study at the University of Pittsburgh found that heavy users were nearly three times more likely to be depressed.

Half of today’s teens are heavy users of social media and the same percentage is at risk for poor mental health. What is the correlation? And, more importantly, what can you do about it? 

Here are three ways social media can affect your teen:

  1. Heavy social media use negatively affects health habits. Excessive screen time disrupts the quality and quantity of sleep. While this is most obvious in a teen’s reluctance to turn off devices at night, screen time during the day is also damaging. The University of Pittsburgh found that teens who used social media the most – even if it was during daytime hours – had nearly twice the risk of sleep disruption as teens who used it least. Heavy social media use also causes teens to be sedentary for long periods of time. The two or more hours that teens spend scrolling through their Twitter feeds is time that they are not engaging in physical activity. Some teens’ absorption in social media even causes them to skip meals, which affects both mental and physical health.
  2. Passive use may cause low self-esteem. Passive use of social media refers to the quiet observation of other users’ profiles. Teens often compare their own lives to what the Huffington Post article describes as “heavily sanitized and filtered versions of reality.” People tend to portray themselves in a flattering manner online, which may cause passive users to have unrealistic expectations for their own appearance and daily lives. 
  3. Active use may cause a need for external validation. Active use is the opposite of passive use. Teens do the filtering themselves, seeking the approval and envy of others. This need for external validation may cause “self-scrutiny of body image, physical appearance and general lifestyle.” Negative feedback from peers can be devastating to teens, and even positive feedback can be detrimental if it reinforces a need for superficial qualities. In the online world, where popularity is quantifiable by a user’s amount of friends, followers and likes, excessive active use of social media is also unhealthy.

Social media isn’t going anywhere, but parents, guardians and educators can make a difference in the way teens interact with it. 

Here’s what you can do to decrease the negative influence of social media on your teen:

  1. Stay vigilant. If your teen is spending over two hours on social media each day, watch for signs of poor sleep, low self-esteem or a need for external validation.
  2. Talk to your teen. Ask if your teen has ever felt jealous of someone on social media or if they try to make their lives appear differently online. Ask if they’ve ever felt cyberbullied or peer pressured on social media. Make sure your teen knows that they can come to you if they need help figuring out how to navigate difficult or uncomfortable online situations. Let them know that while social media can be a great way to connect with friends, they should seek self-acceptance in the form of positive relationships and activities they enjoy in school, through sports or the arts.
  3. Make a plan. If your teen is a heavy user of social media, take small steps to reduce the amount of time your teen spends online. Perhaps your family can charge devices in the kitchen rather than the bedroom, or you and your teen can spend time together in other ways – such as going on a bike ride or seeing a movie together.

What are your experiences parenting a teenager who frequently uses social media? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!