Does Social Media Cause Depression in Teenagers?

Conflict Over Screen Time May Cause More Problems Than Actual Screen Time

Most parents of teens grew up in a time without the internet.

But if you’re a teenager, you’re well aware. Your parents take every chance they get to remind you of the fact. Parents wax nostalgic about the days of buying vinyl albums from record stores or from a record club through the mail. One penny could get you six full albums. They opine about what a luxury it must be to have every song you want available at the click of a mouse or the tap of a smartphone screen.

The same is true for TV. Parents these days tell their kids things like “I remember when there were only six channels – and just three good ones. Cartoons only played on Saturday mornings and we had to wait a whole week for the next episode of our favorite shows. There was none of this dropping an entire season all at once they do now.”

With all that sentimentality over the good old days of TV and music, you’d think everyone was in love with TV and music back then.

But that’s not quite the case.

Here’s what parents said to their kids in the 70s and 80s at least a dozen times a day:

That TV is going to rot your brain – and that stuff you listen to isn’t even music.

Let’s ignore the part about music and focus on the first half of that sentence. Decades ago, our parents seemed genuinely convinced TV was going to rot our brains. Too much TV watching was roundly condemned by responsible parents, who – and it bears repeating – truly believed too much TV would harm their children.

Well, they were wrong.

Our brains did not rot.

Fast forward to 2021, when we have a new villain on the scene: social media.

Social Media, Teens, and Mental Health

In 2021, social media is in a position analogous to TV in the 70s, from the parental point of view: it’s the root of everything that’s wrong in our culture. Materialism. Comparing ourselves to others. Anonymous messaging and profiles seem like a recipe for deception and shady behavior. Out-of-control advertising based on appearance, flashy products, and sensational claims made with one purpose: get more clicks and sell more products.

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When you think of social media like that, it seems obvious that social media – the part that’s not kid pics, grandma recipes, and cat memes – is bad for our teens. And when we think about social media influencers and what they do – post idealized pictures of themselves looking beautiful, wearing the latest clothes, and showing off the newest electronic accessories – it also seems obvious that social media is a negative influence on our teen’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine – for parents – that social media can have anything but a negative effect on our teen’s mental and emotional health. It’s hard to imagine that spending too much time on social media doesn’t degrade their self-esteem and self-image. It seems designed specifically to create unrealistic emotional and psychological expectations in our teens, which – is a logical leap that seems simple to parents – appear to be a recipe for depression and anxiety.

In other words, in 2021, it’s easy for parents to arrive at a conclusion similar to the TV will rot your brain one parents arrived at so often in the 70s and 80s. The new version is social media will rot your brain, wreck your self-esteem, and probably cause mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

There’s one problem with that new version: there’s no science behind it.

Common Sense Media Report: Coming of Age in a Digital World

The authors of a comprehensive analysis on the effect of social media and screen time on adolescent mental health published by the non-profit Common Sense Media in late 2020 reached the following conclusion: there’s no evidence to support the assertion that increased screen time increases the symptoms of mental health disorders in teens.

In their own words:

“In our own research with 10- to 14-year-old adolescents in the United States, neither the amount of time adolescents spent online each day each day, nor the time they spent engaged in a wide range of online activities, including social media use, increased their mental health symptoms. Instead, small associations were found in the opposite direction: Teens who were more frequent texters reported feeling better (less depressed) than their peers who engaged in texting less frequently.”

That last sentence might surprise some parents. Rather than harming teens and causing emotional problems like depression, a small sliver of the data indicates that connecting via text or chat – either through social media or typical phone texting – can help improve mood and overall self-esteem and wellbeing.

In other words, screen time and social media appear not to be the villains many parents believe they are. At worst, they have little to no effect. And at best, they may help. But let’s back up and look at the data.

Social Media and Depression: Which Teens Are At-Risk?

We’ll start with the word little in the phrase little to no effect. There is one demographic subgroup where several studies identify a correlation between increased media time and increased symptoms of depression: tween girls age 10-14. However, not all studies observe this effect, and in those that do, researchers take pains to explain the nature of the data. They warn parents not to read the small correlation as proof positive of causation.

Here’s what they say about the effect of increased social media time, tween girls, and depression. When they do find relationships between social media and depression, it’s impossible to determine whether:

  1. Young girls with depression are more likely to spend time on social media
  2. Social media causes depression and related behaviors, and/or
  3. The two trend lines are moving together simply because other factors are driving both.

What that means is that when researchers find a connection between depression and social media use in teens, the effect is small, and there’s “no way to sort out cause from effect.”

This is the point in the article we’ll identify as anticlimactic – because that’s a summary of the data we have connecting increased screen time and social media use with increased symptoms of mental health disorders.

There’s almost none.

It’s not hard to understand why parents and other interested parties point a finger at and demonize social media and screen time, though. Over the past twenty years – and the past five years, more precisely – reported rates of mental health disorders among adolescents increased dramatically.

Here are the basic trends.

Trends in Depression and Suicide: Adolescents and Young People Age 10-24

  • Between 2005 and 2014, depressive episodes among girls 14-17 increased by over 4 percentage points.
  • Between 2005 and 2014, depressive episodes among boys 14-17 increased by 1.2 percentage points.
  • Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among people age 10-24.
  • Between 2007 and 2017, the overall suicide rate for people age 10-24 increased 56% percent
  • Suicide among girls age 10-14 increased fourfold between 1999 and 2017
  • In the year 2018, over 1400 girls age 10-14 died by suicide, and over 5,000 boys age 10-14 died by suicide.

These drastic increases in the rates of mental health disorders and suicide rates beg an explanation. The fact that the rise of the digital and social media age overlaps almost exactly with the increase in mental health disorders among adolescents makes it tempting to blame the internet and social media for these increases.

We want a boogeyman to point to, but we don’t have one – and we also know that mental health disorders almost never have a single cause. Instead, they develop as a result of a complex, dynamic interplay between genetic history, family dynamics, and various biological, social, and psychological risk factors.

The people at Common Sense Media out it this way:

“Given these weak and inconsistent correlations [Ed: between social media, depression, and suicide] these findings suggest that if adults are concerned about the causes of adolescents’ mental health symptoms, then social media use is not the logical place to start the conversation. Instead, it is more productive to begin with known and robust risk factors for mental disorders.”

They also make this observation:

Conflict over screen time may be more damaging to a teenager’s mental health than screen time itself.

With that in mind, we’ll outline the Common Sense Media recommendations for parents and caregivers who worry about their teen’s screen time and social media use.

The Social Media Dilemma: What Parents Can Do

The first thing most parents need to do is accept they may be wrong about social media and screen time. While the instinct is to label them in broad strokes as frivolous wastes of time with negative social, psychological, and emotional consequences, that’s neither backed up by reliable data nor productive for the parent-teen relationship.

Here are eight things the Common Sense report recommends for parents and caregivers:

1. Communicate

Talk to teens about what attracts them to certain platforms and sites. Ask them where they feel safe and supported online, and where they feel unsafe. Ask them how the people they follow make them feel.

2. Identify

Work with teens to understand when social media or online interactions cause stress or created problems offline with friends, family, or peers at school.

3. Reserve Judgment

Despite any instinct to demonize social media, understand that very little evidence exists to support the idea that social media has a negative impact on grade, mental health, or overall wellbeing.

4. Monitor Offline Mental Health

Adolescence is the time when the initial symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety may first appear. Problems offline and online often mirror one another: teens with preexisting depression – especially girls age 10-14 – may be vulnerable to negative effects of social media.

5. See the Good

Teens and young people age 12-25 often go online seeking support for mental health issues. A survey conducted in 2018 polled 1,300 teens and found that 42% went online or to social media for information or support for anxiety, while 30% went online or to social media for information about depression. Parents can help their teens by helping them search for support, and ensuring the information and support they find online is valid and evidence-based.

6. Teens With Social Anxiety

While this may seem counterintuitive, there are online apps designed to help teens improve social skills and reduce anxiety. Parents can help by reviewing these apps, scaffolding the tools, and supporting teens as they seek to help themselves.

7. Monitor Teens With Depression

Parents of teens diagnosed with depression should review all their teen’s online behavior and evaluate all the content they consume. Parents can work with mental health professionals to interrupt non-productive media consumption and facilitate the use of the internet and social media to seek sites and content that offer positive support and help teens build practical coping skills.

8. Be Prepared: They May Want Early Access

Parents should be prepared for their tweens to ask for access to social media. Younger adolescents need clear guidance online. Families may need to create a social media policy earlier than planned. When parents give tweens access, parents should grant the access stepwise, in increments, and always monitor their internet and social media use. For tweens with preexisting mental health or conduct issues, parents should consider delaying access.

Finally, they recommend that if parents restrict access to computers, phones, or social media as a consequence or outcome for breaking rules or unwanted behavior, they should understand what it is they’re taking away. If a teen uses the internet and social media to seek support, then restricting access may cause more harm than good.

Teens, Depression, and Social Media: The Takeaways

We need to clarify something before we close. There are indeed populations for whom increased screen time may be detrimental. These include:

  • Girls age 10-14 (very weak but present correlations, explained above)
  • Teens with preexisting mental health conditions
  • Victims of bullying
  • Teens prone to negative self-talk

However, it’s important to understand that data suggests social media may exacerbate, rather than cause, conditions that are already present. Therefore, parents should carefully monitor internet and social media use among these groups of teens.

With that said, the big picture message from Common Sense Media is that while the internet and social media may be related to the increase in mental health disorders and suicide among young people over the past twenty years, concerned parents can better help their teens by looking to factors with a more robust evidence base to explain these increases. Factors that contribute to mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety include family history, socioeconomic status, early childhood trauma or adverse childhood experiences, genetic predisposition, and other social and environmental factors.

The cumulative data of the past fifty years confirms these are the main drivers of mental health disorders among teens. Recent research into the effect of social media on teen mental health – and teen depression specifically – do not contradict this solid database. On the contrary, evidence shows that for teens with social anxiety and LGBTQI + teens, online spaces can be safe, supportive, and helpful.

We’ll leave parents with a new rule of thumb for evaluating teen screen time and social media use:

Rather than stressing about how much your teen uses social media or the internet, instead, concern yourself with how your teen uses social media or the internet.

Making this switch can reduce family conflict and empower both teens and parents alike to leverage the internet and social media to enhance and improve family life. And remember: almost any problem with technology is a human problem, over which humans – in this case, parents and teens – have the ultimate control.

Ready to Get Help for Your Child?

Evolve offers CARF and Joint Commission accredited treatment for teens with mental health disorders and/or substance abuse. Your child will receive the highest caliber of care in our comfortable, home-like residential treatment centers. We offer a full continuum of care, including residential, partial hospitalization/day (PHP), and intensive outpatient treatment (IOP).
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