Elk River Teen Treatment Program

Social Media is Increasing Teen Depression & Mental Health Issues

How Does Social Media Affect Teenagers?

March 13, 2020

Seven hours. This might sound like the typical amount of time your teen spends in school or sleeps at night, but it’s actually how long teenagers spend viewing social media on their smartphones.

How does this time on social media impact teenagers? More than one to two hours of social media use per day may increase depression and mental health problems in teens. However, separating cause and effect in this relationship can be difficult.

The Treatment Team at Elk River Treatment Program views smartphone or any electronic dependence (parents may refer to it as “addiction”) as a symptom of an underlying problem. A teen suffering from anxiety or depression may use their smartphone as a way to feel connected with peers. Posts on social media are generally fun activities where acquaintances are looking their best. For someone who is struggling with a mental health challenge, viewing the world from the narrow lens of social media may enhance their anxiety and/or depression. Or a teen unable to process a childhood traumatic event may use their smartphones as a distraction to avoid the common fight, flight or freeze response.

“Children are masters at compartmentalizing traumatic events because their brains are not mature enough to process the trauma. With the onset of puberty, their brains are maturing, and feelings related to an earlier traumatic event may start to bubble up. It is also around that age when young people get their first phone,” explains Selina Mason, Director of Outreach for the Elk River Treatment Program.

Parents are left scratching their heads. What happened to my child? I don’t know this person anymore. As a parent, arming yourself with knowledge of the common effects of smartphone and social media use on teenagers can help you establish healthy boundaries for your family that maximize the positive impact of constant connectivity.

Negative effects of social media on teenagers

According to psychiatry experts, social media use can negatively affect the mental and physical health of teens:

  • Body image concerns
    Teens tend to compare themselves to others on social media. In one study, female young adults reported a negative mood and increased desire to change their appearance after spending time on Facebook.
  • Increased risk of cyberbullying
    The disconnected nature of social media interactions can nurture negative commenting and cyberbullying. Teenagers who experience cyberbullying report an increase in depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
  • Decreased academic performance
    Teens may be more sensitive to negative impacts from “media multitasking,” potentially reducing attention spans and cognitive performance.
  • Insufficient or disrupted sleep
    Smartphone use before bedtime may reduce quantity and quality of sleep and increase tiredness during the daytime. Even the presence of smartphones in the bedroom can disrupt sleep, possibly due to the temptation to check the nearby device.
  • Decreased self-esteem
    Social media popularity measures, such as number of likes and friends, can contribute to negative feelings of self-esteem.
  • Underdeveloped social skills
    When the majority of a teen’s communication occurs through phones or social media, they do not learn many of the social skills acquired from in-person conversations, such as understanding body language and verbal cues. This may lead to anxiety or avoidance of social situations.

Adolescent counselors at Elk River Treatment Program agree but stress that allowing a young person to hide behind the screen of their smartphone in order to avoid negative feelings leads to more embedded behaviors with time. If your child’s behavior suddenly becomes hostile, reclusive or erratic, start a dialogue that is nonconfrontational and ease into subjects that may be difficult for both of you. Elk River Treatment Program recommends “How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlist as a helpful resource for parents.

How Does Social Media Affect Teenagers

Benefits of social media on teenagers

Social media can be a strong source of social support and community when used intentionally. Teens who maintain a strong commitment to in-person socializing are not as vulnerable to the negative impacts of social media.

What can parents do to reduce the negative impact of social media on teenagers?

There are several simple ways you can help your teen establish a healthy relationship with social media and their smartphone.

  • Model healthy smartphone
    use Limit your family’s social media use to one to two hours a day, preferably only for set times and in common areas in the home.
  • Reduce phone use before bedtime
    Use a designated alarm clock to avoid sleeping next to your phone. Set your phone in a different room overnight, and try not to use your phone one to two hours before bedtime to allow your mind to decompress.
  • Communicate the risks of social media
    Discuss the harmful effects of social media, including body image concerns, decreased self-esteem, the risk of cyberbullying, and sleep disruption, with your teen and family.
  • Discuss alternative ways of connecting
    Help reduce your teen’s social media and screen time by encouraging them to connect with friends in person or on the phone.
  • Enlist assistance
    Parenting “takes a village,” and studies support a community approach: open, nonjudgmental therapeutic alliances are generally the most effective way to communicate with teens. If your teen is struggling to set healthy boundaries with smart phone and social media use, there may be a deeper cause. Clinical allies that specialize in adolescent treatment, such as the Elk River Treatment Program, can help.