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

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 check online news feeds regularly, you’ve probably noticed a trend over the past three months: there’s been an abundance of headlines in national media outlets linking social media use with depression in adolescents. When we see these types of headlines, we take them with a grain of salt. Online news media survives by getting clicks. The best way to get clicks is to write a provocative headline. Sometimes those headlines exaggerate or sensationalize the content of the story, and – if you click on the article – more often than not, you realize about halfway through you’ve been had: you bit on the click-bait. What you find in the article is not nearly as bad as what the headline implied.

However, when we see alarming headlines about adolescent health from news outlets that generally don’t use click-bait headlines to drive readership, we pay attention. We dig deeper, read the articles thoroughly, and verify the data and sources from which the authors of the articles draw their conclusions. It’s worth noting that journalists typically don’t write headlines: editors do. But that’s not our point here.

Our point is that when we see a headline like this one from National Public Radio (March 14th, 2019):

“A Rise in Depression Among Teens and Young Adults Could Be Linked to Social Media Use”

We pay attention – mostly because NPR doesn’t do click-bait. And they didn’t this time, either, not really. But their headline does trigger a latent anxiety most parents of teens harbor. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the headline reinforces a common opinion which is, at best, a genuine parental concern, and at worst, the 21st century equivalent of “You kids get off my lawn!”

If you’ve ever thought, “All this screen time and social media is ruining our kids,” that’s the one we’re talking about.

Reading News on Mental Health Issues: Due Diligence Required

First, let’s clarify something. The NPR article we’re talking about does not say “Facebook Causes Teen Depression” or “Snapchat is Bad for Your Teen’s Mental Health.” Let’s also be honest about something else. When you casually browse past a headline with phrases like “…depression among teens…could be linked to social media use…” you may file that in your mind with an idea that neither the headline, nor the article, nor the source data actually says. You may take away something more along the lines of “Facebook Causes Teen Depression.”

That’s an easy trap to fall into, and that’s one reason we’re writing this post. We want to offer two pieces of advice about browsing headlines that mention mental health topics:

  1. If the topic interests you and is directly relevant to your teen and how you parent them, then read the article thoroughly. Don’t scroll by and let an exaggerated or sensationalist headline be the sum total of your knowledge on the subject.
  2. Always check the source data for the article. If the article cites a peer reviewed journal study, then find that study and read it. The data may not actually reflect what the headline says, and sometimes the content of the article presents an incomplete picture of the data presented by researchers.

The upshot of this is that we don’t want you to make parenting choices based on fleeting impressions caused by click-bait headlines, and we don’t want you to form opinions based on articles that cherry-pick data in order to drive readership to their sites.

Social Media Use and Adolescent Depression: The Big Picture

For the record, we’re not picking on NPR. We’re using it as an example because, as objective and responsible as they seem to be, even they need catchy headlines. So, if we’re doing our due diligence – meaning we read the article and the source material – what do we find?

The final paragraph of source study for the NPR article says this (we edited out the parts that don’t talk about depression in teens):

“In conclusion…rates of past-year MDE (major depressive episode) increased among adolescents aged 12 to 17…between the mid-2000s and 2017. The results suggest a need for more research to understand the role of factors such as technology and digital media use…may play in mood disorder…and to develop specialized interventions for younger cohorts.”

What the headline got right was that teen depression is on the rise: data from the study indicates rates of major depressive episode among adolescents aged 12-17 increased 52% between 2005 and 2017. What the headline does not get right – and the article only mentions briefly – is that the connection between social media and depression is only a guess, and that the true correlation between depression and social media among teens occurs when teens use social media a lot.

And by a lot, we mean a whole lot.

We learn this when we compare the data in this study with data presented by Common Sense Media in their 2018 yearly report Social Media, Social Lives. The largest effect of social media use on adolescents appears in eighth graders who spend 10 or more hours a week on social media: they’re 56% more likely to report being unhappy than those who spend less time on social media. We also learn that, when teens themselves weigh in on the effect of social media on their well-being and depression, the results are mixed and sometimes contradictory.

Common Sense Media: Social Networking and Adolescent Well-Being

Here are the big picture takeaways from the 2018 report:

  • Depression:
    • 10% of teens say social networking sites make them feel less depressed
    • 5% of teens say social networking sites make them feel more depressed
  • Shyness:
    • 29% of teens say social networking sites make them feel less shy
    • 3% of teens say social networking sites make them feel more shy
  • Outgoing:
    • 28% of teens say social networking sites make them feel more outgoing
    • 3% of teens say social networking sites make them feel less outgoing
  • Confident:
    • 20% of teens say social networking sites make them feel more confident
    • 4% of teens say social networking sites make them feel less confident
  • Popular:
    • 19% of teens say social networking sites make them feel more popular
    • 4% of teens say social networking sites make them feel less popular
  • Better About Themselves:
    • 15% of teens say social networking sites make them feel better about themselves
    • 4% of teens say social networking sites make them feel less better about themselves

The most interesting wrinkle in this data comes from the 10% of teens who report they aren’t very happy with their lives:

  • 18% say social media makes them feel more depressed
  • 13% say it makes them feel less depressed
  • 42% say they wish their parents would spend less time on their phone and devices

Time to circle back to the common thought parents have when they browse the news and see headlines about social media and adolescent mental health – the one we mentioned at the beginning of this article:

All this screen time and social media is ruining our kids.”

So, is it?

Like most answers related to questions parenting and teens, the answer is “Yes, no, it depends.” If they’re heavy social media users – meaning they check their sites more than six times a day – then social media may have a negative effect on their lives. If they’re moderate or light users, then social media is probably not having a significant negative effect on their lives.

What Parents Can Do

Before we suggest ways to address the effect social media might have on your teen’s mental health, we want to quickly mention something we haven’t yet. Depression rates have increased more for girls than for boys over the past twelve years. Between 2005 and 2017, rates of depression in girls ages 12-17 jumped from 13.1% to 19.9%. For parents of adolescent girls who show signs of depression and use social media a lot – heavy users who check their sites more than six times a day – social media may, indeed, be a contributing factor.

With that said, we found a list of helpful tips from The Child Mind Institute about how to make sure social media and networking don’t have a negative effect on your teen’s emotional health. Before that, though, have a quick look at our article Is My Teen Depressed or Just Moody?

If you suspect your teen is clinically depressed, please seek professional help using this this psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Now, to the list:

Tips For Healthy Social Media Use

  1. Notifications. Turn them off. If your teen has a phone, turn app notifications for all social media sites off. Your teen can find out who reacted to what by opening the app itself: they don’t need a beep and a flashing red light any time one of their friends taps their screen.
  2. Moderation. In the same way you limit screen time, think about limiting social media time, as well. The data places heavy social media users at higher risk of suffering negative emotional consequences, so be proactive and keep your teen’s use under control.
  3. Mindfulness. Talk to your teen about how using social media affects their emotions. Teach them they can block negative contacts, they don’t have to engage when peers are being negative or critical towards others, and if they don’t like the way certain social media sites make them feel, they can simply use them less or shut down their profiles completely. If you have a teenage girl, this talk is especially important: empower them by reminding them they’re in control of their virtual lives and talk to them about the relationship between depression and heavy social media use.
  4. Sleep Hygiene. Create a smartphone/social media cut-off time at least twenty minutes (minimum) before bed time. Screens keep kids awake. Lack of sleep and heavy social media use can contribute to mental health issues in teens. Therefore, address both these potential pitfalls with a no phones/social media before bed rule.
  5. Model Appropriate Smartphone/Social Media Use. Walk the walk. Do all the things you want your kid to do: put the phone down during dinner, avoid Facebook et al. while real people are right there with you, and make sure you spend plenty of quality, media-free time with your teen.

Technology: It’s All in How We Use It

The Common Sense Media report points out that most teens see social media as a positive force in their lives. We owe it to teens to listen to them instead of assuming social media, itself, is negative by definition. One thing the past couple of years has taught us all is that these sites exist almost exclusively to generate advertising revenue – but they can’t do that without our consent. And where your teenager is concerned, social media sites can’t have a negative impact on their emotional well-being if we, as parents, teach them how to use social media mindfully, and remind them that nothing beats real, face-to-face human contact and shared, in-person activities – preferably outdoors, away from screens altogether.

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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