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Social Media and Anxiety in Youth: How Social Media Can Lead to Anxiety in Teens

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Can Anxiety Be a Sign of Bipolar Disorder?

Adults with teenage children have a tendency to blame social media for every behavior they don’t like to see in their teens. They cite excess social media use for changes in the way their kids dress and talk. They say it leads to changes in their interests and personality. Whether parents are right or wrong, headlines and opinions from experts on adolescent development fuel the fire. Some articles connect the well-documented increase in depression, anxiety, suicide, and suicidal ideation over the past twenty years directly to the arrival of social media in our lives a little over ten years ago.

That’s not an illogical connection to make.

In fact, it makes perfect sense: the two trends appear to correlate almost exactly.

However, the available data don’t support an unequivocal causal connection between social media and an increase in mental health symptoms in adolescents, despite the fact that at first blush, the connection seems obvious.

The data do support some correlation between social media use and mental health, but those correlations are not always negative. In some situations, social media can help teens connect to their peers, seek help with mental health issues, practice social interaction in safe spaces, and boost self-esteem and feelings of peer connectedness and wellbeing.

While the final word on the relationship between social media and mental health problems is not in, there are specific groups of teens for whom increased screen time may be related to anxiety and depressive disorders.

These groups include:

  • Tween girls age 10-14
  • Teens with preexisting mental health conditions
  • Teens who experience bullying
  • Tweens and teens who frequently engage in negative self-talk

Before we explore these relationships – and discuss the connection between anxiety and bipolar disorder – we’ll address the increase in mental health issues among teens over the past twenty years.

Teens and Mental Health: Trends in the Data

Parents are influenced by experts who share their opinions in widely circulated articles that, in turn, shape public opinion. The reason experts and parents alike default to the position that social media is an inherently negative force in teen mental health doesn’t come out of thin air. The position has roots in real data, but not data that proves the connections many experts make in public, which parents and the general public then espouse.

For instance, let’s take a look at the increase in mental health issues among adolescents since around the year 2005. First, we’ll look at depression and suicide.

Trends in Depression and Suicide: Adolescents and Young Adults

  • 2005-2014:
    • Depression among girls 14-17 increased by 4 percentage points.
    • Depression among boys 14-17 increased by 1.2 percentage points.
  • 1999-2017:
    • Suicide among girls 10-14 increased fourfold
  • 2007-2017:
    • Suicide among people 10-24 increased 56% percent
  • 2018:
    • Over 1,400 girls 10-14 died by suicide
    • Over 5,000 boys 10-14 died by suicide
  • 2021:
    • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people 10-24.

Now let’s have a look at the anxiety data.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that:

  • 31.9% of adolescents have clinical anxiety
  • 8.33 % have anxiety with severe impairment as a result.
  • 38% of girls have clinical anxiety
  • 26.1% of boys have clinical anxiety

In addition, the Child Mind Institute reports that:

  • 19.3% of adolescents have a specific phobia
  • 9.1% have social anxiety disorder
  • 7.6% have separation anxiety
  • 2.3% have a panic disorder
  • 2.2% have generalized anxiety disorder

The thing about those anxiety numbers is that they’ve remained relatively stable since 2005. They skyrocketed in 2020 and 2021 but we all know why: the pandemic. Therefore, although the increase in anxiety among adolescents from 2019-2021 may be peripherally related to social media, social media is certainly not the main culprit.

Let’s sum up all this data:

  1. Rates of mental health issues in teens increased over the past 20 years.
  2. The most significant increases occurred in rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide.
  3. These increases coincide with the increase in social media use among teens.
  4. Rates of anxiety among adolescents remained relatively stable from 2005-2019, then jumped in 2020-2021.
  5. Research shows that for mental health issues among adolescents, there is no causal connection to social media use, however, for some teens, social media use can lead to or exacerbate anxiety.

The Positive Aspects of Social Media

While social media and anxiety in youth is an important topic to understand, there are also positive aspects of teens using social media platforms. Some of these include the ability to:

  • Communicate with friends and family from any location
  • Find people with similar interests and hobbies
  • Access education
  • Build social awareness
  • Express creativity
  • Find entertainment

These positive aspects are a reminder that when used thoughtfully, social media can enhance a young person’s life.

The Negative Aspects of Social Media

Teens are still forming their identities and are more vulnerable to the negative aspect of social media than most adults. Social media and anxiety in youth are growing problems for this reason. In addition to social media-induced anxiety, some of the negative impacts include:

Understanding the negative impacts of social media will help parents and teens decide how much and what types of social media are best.

How Can Social Media Cause Anxiety In Teens?

Teens are subjected to a lot of different pressures from social media, but the connection between social media and teen anxiety is not as simple as you may think. For teens who are already struggling with insecurities, social media can trigger feelings of anxiety and pressure to get likes and comments on their posts.

When it comes to social media and anxiety in youth, comparing their media “presence” to that of others can exacerbate low self-esteem by making teens feel they are not as good or as interesting as others.

Comments made by others can also add to social media anxiety due to rude, negative, or bullying commentary from others.

The Top 4 Stressors on Social Media

There are four primary social media stressors that can affect adolescents. They include social currency, the highlight reel, FOMO, and online harassment.

The highlight reel is typically a compilation of photos highlighting vacations and other special moments. Teens who don’t have exciting photos can feel anxious that their life isn’t “good enough” or that others will see that they are lacking in status.

The desire to enhance their social currency is another form of social media anxiety. Social currency refers to a user’s ability to influence other people, promote products, or build a “brand” that attracts followers.

FOMO (fear of missing out) is an anxious feeling that can arise when you think others are having fun without you. FOMO can lead to constant checking in on social media to find out what friends are doing.

Online harassment is one of the most dangerous examples of social media effects on teen stress. Harassment and other forms of cyberbullying can come from strangers all over the world.

Social Media and Teen Mental Health: Who’s at Risk

Reliable, peer-reviewed data from Common-Sense Media shows the teens at-risk of negative mental health outcomes from social media use include tween girls (10-14), teens with preexisting mental health conditions, teens who experience bullying, and teens prone to negative self-talk.

This is important information for parents to understand. For teens with no mental health issues, data shows that social media is not a significant problem. However, the at-risk teens mentioned above often visit social media sites and engage in behavior and/or have experiences that are detrimental to their mental health and overall wellbeing.

Several studies cited in this meta-analysis show that the type of interaction and the reason for going on social media are what can lead to anxiety. For teens at-risk, specific types of interaction and social media use can have an adverse impact.

Social Media Use with Negative Consequences

  • Social comparing: visiting social media sites to assess social status
  • Appearance comparing: visiting social media sites to assess looks and clothes
  • Negative interactions: comment exchanges, direct message exchanges, and reactions to posts that are not supportive
  • Heavy use: spending more than two hours per day on social media sites

All those behaviors correlate with increased anxiety in teens. Therefore, parents of teens in the at-risk categories mentioned above should monitor three things:

  1. How their teens use social media: social and appearance comparing are associated with increased anxiety
  2. The types of interactions they have: negative comments, direct messages, and reactions are associated with increased anxiety
  3. Time on social media: spending more than two hours a day on social media is associated with increased anxiety.

If an at-risk teen engages in or experiences those behaviors, then parents should teach their teens how to use social media productively, since data shows that when teens use social media for support and connection, they can improve their overall mental health, as opposed exacerbate their mental health problems.

Now it’s time to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article:

Can teen anxiety be a sign of bipolar disorder?

The short answer: in some cases, yes.

Signs that Social Media Is Impacting Your Teen’s Mental Health

One way to prevent social media anxiety disorder is to watch for signs that social media is harming your child’s self-esteem. Red flags include lying about or hiding their social media use, constantly checking their devices, or wondering if anxiety will ever go away.

Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder: The Connection

A study published in 2019 shows that almost fifty percent of people with bipolar disorder (BD) will also develop an anxiety disorder during their lives. Here are the types of anxiety disorders that most commonly co-occur with BD, along with their prevalence rates:

  • Panic disorder: 19.5%
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): 16.5%
  • Social phobia: 20%
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): 14%
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD): 13%)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): 12%
  • Specific phobias: 11%
  • Agoraphobia: 8%

Now let’s compare the symptoms of anxiety with the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Here are the emotional symptoms of anxiety:

  • Heightened fear of regular daily situations
  • Extreme irritability and/or restlessness
  • Always assuming the most negative outcome for any future event
  • Extreme agitation or nervousness

Next, the physical symptoms of anxiety:

  • Increased heart rate and/or hyperventilating
  • Insomnia, fatigue, headaches
  • Twitching, sweating, or tremors
  • Nausea
  • Frequent trips to the bathroom

Here an abbreviated list of the symptoms of the manic phase of bipolar disorder:

  • Temper tantrums/outbursts of anger
  • Pressured or rapid speech
  • Racing thoughts
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Very high energy levels
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating

Next, an abbreviated list of the symptoms of the depressive phase of bipolar disorder:

  • Decreased self-confidence or self-esteem
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Changes in appetite
  • Apathy
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Difficulty starting or completing tasks
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities

It’s clear from reading these lists that there is a significant overlap between the symptoms of anxiety and the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Each disorder, when it occurs alone, can severely disrupt day-to-day functioning and prevent an adolescent from participating in family, school, social, and extracurricular activities. When the two disorders co-occur, the co-occurrence can exacerbate both disorders, and have a negative impact on “almost all aspects of the course and outcome of the illness[es].”

Anxiety Disorders and Bipolar Disorder: Consequences of Co-Occurrence

Here’s what can happen when an anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder co-occur. People with both disorders may experience:

  • More symptoms, more often, and more intensely
  • Longer episodes of both the manic and depressive phases of BD
  • Decreased rates of remission and recovery for both disorders
  • Elevated impairment of functioning and decreased overall quality of life
  • Decrease in successful response to treatment for both disorders
  • Increased risk of suicide

One thing we want to point out here is that bipolar disorder in adolescents is often misdiagnosed as something different. Clinicians may identify depression, anxiety, a behavior disorder, or psychosis. This misdiagnosis often leads to an exacerbation of the symptoms of bipolar disorder. When the two disorders are present simultaneously – anxiety and BD – a misdiagnosis can lead to an exacerbation of the symptoms of both disorders, which can lead to a host of other problems.

That’s why parents of teens with any kind of mental health disorder should pay close attention this year, more than any other year. There’s a potential storm brewing for teens. The stress of the pandemic, the increase in social media use related to an entire school year spent online (for millions of teens, but not all), and the relationship between isolation, stress, and mental health disorders like anxiety and bipolar disorder have the potential to push any at-risk teen from the preliminary stages of mental illness to full-blown mental illness.

Let’s be clear. We’re not saying social media causes anxiety which may be a sign your teen is in the early stages of bipolar disorder. What we’re saying is that teens at-risk – meaning tween girls, teens with preexisting mental health conditions, teens who experience bullying, and teens prone to negative self-talk – are in a particularly vulnerable place right now.

Parents: If You See the Symptoms, Seek Professional Support

If you’re the parent of a teen in the at-risk category, we recommend paying very close attention to the way your teen uses social media. It’s a double-edged sword: the teens most likely to experience the negative effects of social media are the same teens that can benefit most from the positive effects of social media. Used productively, teens can make peer connections, boost self-esteem, and improve their overall sense of wellbeing. On the other hand, social media can increase symptoms of depression and anxiety, which can have an adverse impact on any mental health issue a teen already has. An increase in symptoms can lead to decreased self-esteem, an increased sense of isolation, and a decreased sense of wellbeing.

If your teen shows any of the signs of anxiety or bipolar disorder we list above – and you know they’re heavy social media users or use social media in the negative ways we identify above – we recommend seeking a full evaluation with a licensed mental health professional. If they identify a mental health disorder, they may recommend treatment at one of the following levels of care:

Programs to help adolescents with anxiety and/or bipolar disorder typically occur at residential treatment centers for youth, adolescent inpatient treatment centers, or adolescent psychiatric residential treatment centers.

During treatment at any level of care, your teen can learn the tools and practical skills they need to manage their anxiety, bipolar disorder, or any other mental health issue a clinician identifies and diagnoses.

Treatment is work – but treatment can and does work for millions of teens every year.

Social Media and Anxiety in Youth: Finding Help for Your Teen

If you’re seeking treatment for your teen, please navigate to our page How to Find the Best Treatment Programs for Teens and download our helpful handbook, A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health Treatment for Teens.

In addition, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) is an excellent resource for locating licensed and qualified psychiatrists, therapists, and counselors in your area. Both the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness also provide and high-quality online resources, ready and waiting for you right now.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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