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The Risks of Social Media to Adolescent Mental Health

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 >

If you’re the parent of a teenager in the year 2021, there’s a good chance you worry about the impact of social media on their mental health. You have good reason to worry. Media headlines over the past several years have presented a consistent message: social media is bad for our teens. Data from reputable sources – not just clickbait news-like sites – appears to support this message, too.

Here are some of the things that cause parents, media producers, and mental health professionals alike to worry about the risks of social media on adolescent mental health. The data below comes from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Trends in Teen/Young Adult Mental Health: 1999-2018

  • Depression among girls 14-17 increased by over 4% between 2005 and 2014.
  • Depression among boys 14-17 increased by 1.2% percentage points between 2005 and 2014.
  • In 2015, suicide became the second leading cause of death among people age 10-24.
  • Between 2007 and 2017, suicide among youth and young adults (age 10-24) rose 56%
  • Between 1999 and 2017, suicide among girls (10-14) increased 400%
  • In 2018, 1,400 girls (10-14) and over 5,000 boys (10-14) died by suicide

There’s another thing for parents to keep in mind. All that data comes from before the coronavirus pandemic. It’s already well-documented that the pandemic of 2020-2021, which, unfortunately, is ongoing, exacerbated the pre-existing mental health crisis among teens. During the pandemic, anxiety, depression, and various other mental health disorders increases among teens.

To learn more about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on teen mental health, please click the links to read our articles on the subject:

80% of Young Adults Report Depression During COVID-19, Study Says

Teens and Mental Health in the News: The NBC Report

Now let’s take a look at the role social media plays in the mental health of our teens.

Spoiler alert. It’s not as simple as the headlines make it seem. And it’s not black and white, the way most people are sure it is.

Social Media and Mental Health: The Teen Conundrum

When we look at the disturbing trends in teen mental health over the past twenty years, it’s easy and tempting to point the finger at social media and cast it as both the villain and the cause. It makes logical sense. By all metrics, the deterioration in teen mental health and the rise in social media and internet use among teens appears obvious.

Here are three reasons it’s easy to blame social media and connect social media use to the increases in mental health issues among teens:

  1. The negative trend in teen mental health began around the year 2000, around the same time access to the internet became the norm in U.S. households.
  2. The negative trend increased dramatically after 2010, when access to smartphones and social media use became the norm in U.S. households.
  3. The way many teens use social media – influencer culture, picture sharing/comparing, and the rise of virtual over in-person communication – simply feels unhealthy to most adults who grew up without social media.

Those three things are true.

However, those three things are not evidence that social media is the primary cause of the teen mental health crisis we find ourselves in now. That’s why we need to look at reliable, peer-reviewed data on the subject to find out what’s real and what’s hype.

Researchers from Common Sense Media report that social media has a negative effect on three specific groups of tweens and teens:

  • Girls age 10-14
  • Teens (13-18) with previously diagnosed mental health disorders
  • Teens who’ve been bullied
  • Tweens and teens who engage in negative self-talk or have low self-esteem/self-image
  • Teens who are heavy social media users

Those are the teens for whom evidence shows social media poses a mental health risk.

Now let’s take a close look at the data.

Types of Social Media Use That Affects At-Risk Teens

It’s important for parents to understand that as of today, the data we have linking casual social media use to adolescent mental health is inconclusive. Some studies show correlations between social media use and anxiety, some show correlations between social media use and depression, and some show correlations between social media use and general psychological distress. However, for every study that shows correlation between social media use and negative teen mental health, there are additional studies that show little to no correlation whatsoever.

It’s also important to understand that as of today, no studies exist that prove social media causes mental health disorders in teens.

To learn more about what we mean by this, please read the following article we published recently:

In the News: The Link Between Adolescent Depression and Social Media Use

With that said, let’s discuss the teens who are at-risk, and how social media use may exacerbate their mental health issues. Quick reminder: teens who are at-risk include girls age 10-14, teens with a previously diagnosed mental health disorder, teens who’ve been bullied, teens prone to negative self-talk, and teens considered heavy social media users.

For these teens, evidence shows the following types of social media use can contribute to negative mental health outcomes:

Four Types of Social Media Use with Negative Consequences

  1. Status comparison: using social media to gauge social status or popularity
  2. Appearance comparison: using social media sites to gauge looks personal looks and fashion choices
  3. Toxic interaction: comments, instant/direct messages, and/or reactions to posts that are negative and neither supportive nor uplifting
  4. Heavy use: using social media for more than two hours per day or checking social media sites more than three times per day

Those are the types of social media use that can have a negative impact on teens. But that doesn’t answer the question of how they might impact a teen. We must reiterate that when we talk about the impact of social media use on teen mental health, the data we refer to identifies what researchers and statisticians call strong or significant correlations, rather than clear cause and effect relationships.

How Social Media Use Affects At-Risk Teens

Those four types of social media use correlate with negative mental health outcomes for teens who are in the at-risk categories we discuss above. Those categories are tween girls, teens with previously diagnosed mental health disorders, teens who’ve been bullied, tweens and teens who engage in negative self-talk or have low self-esteem/self-image, and teens who are heavy social media users.

A study published in 2019 called A Systematic Review: The Influence of Social Media on Depression, Anxiety and Psychological Distress In Adolescents shows the effect the four negative types of social media use might have on those specific groups of vulnerable teens:

Status Comparison

At-risk teens who visit social media sites to compare themselves to teens who they believe have higher social status correlates with anxiety and depression. In addition, passive Facebook use predicts “social comparison and envy,” which can lead to depression.

Appearance Comparison

At-risk teens who visit social media sites to compare themselves with peers or others they think are more attractive or wear nicer/more fashionable clothes report higher rates of anxiety and depression than teens who do not use social media to compare themselves or their looks/fashion choices with others.

Toxic Interaction

At-risk teens who make posts that receive negative comments, result in negative instant/direct messages, or receive negative reactions to their posts report higher rates of anxiety and depression than teens who do not experience toxic interactions.

Heavy Use

At-risk teens who use social media for more than two hours per day or check social media sites more than three times per day report higher levels of anxiety, depression psychological distress than teens who use social media for less than two hours a day and/or check social media sites less than three times per day.

How You Can Help Your Teen

The first thing to do is determine whether your teen is in one of the at-risk groups or not. If they’re not, we recommend you still maintain an active interest in their social media use. Teens can change quickly. A teen who uses social media who develops a mental health disorder may become at-risk before you, the parent, realize what’s happening. Remember, it’s not that your teen uses social media, it’s how – and that how becomes more important for at-risk groups.

If your teen is in an at-risk group, then the best thing to do is examine their social media use carefully, using the information above. If their social media use falls into one of the four negative types, then it’s time to have a serious conversation with them about it. They may not realize the way they use social media has a negative impact on their mental health. They may change their behavior – and improve their mental health – simply because you took the time to learn about this topic, and decided to say something about it.

Finally, if you think your teen has developed a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety, and social media may be part of the picture, then we recommend that you arrange a full evaluation with a mental health professional.

If a professional assessment indicates the presence of a mental health disorder, and they need treatment and support, evidence shows that the sooner they get it, the better.

Finding Help: Resources for Parents

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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