Social Media and Adolescent Mental Health
Researchers have found that approximately 97% of teens use some form of social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Youtube). So whether we like it or not, Social Media is a part of modern society, and it plays a part in the lives of the adolescents we care about. Indeed this has brought a lot of new challenges for young people and their families as parents navigate their teens social media use and supporting their mental health, when they have very different life experiences during this phase of life.
Is Social Media to blame for Adolescent mental health difficulties?
There is no definitive answer to this question as it just isn’t as simple as that. We know as human beings our mental health is widely influenced from an array of internal and external factors. Even prior to social media, Adolescence has been a challenging developmental period of life that comes with an increased risk for mental illnesses to emerge. The combination of physical, hormonal, emotional and cognitive changes, all whilst navigating ever-growing complex social dynamics, educational expectations and figuring out who you are and what you want to do in your life. Big transitions. Big growth. Big decisions. Challenging times.
As we have seen an increase in mental health disorders in our youth (and our society at large) over the past number of years, and this has somewhat coincided with the world’s increased use of social media, it is unsurprising that there have been growing concerns about the link between the two.
However researchers suggest that social media is a double edged sword, that it isn’t all bad as these platforms can make it easier for individuals to form and create online social connections, and even support adolescents identity development, however social media platforms can also be a source of social comparison, bullying, isolation and exclusion.
Benefits of Social Media – particularly for adolescence
Everyone is different, however Social Media seems to be a helpful tool in a young person’s life, particularly with how important being socially connected during this time period is for their psychosocial development.
Some of the benefits of social media indicated for adolescents…
- Develop and practice social skills
- Feel more connected with others, seek support from peers when needed
- Explore new ideas and issues that they may not otherwise be exposed to
- Develop more cultural awareness, through exposure to cultures they may not otherwise be exposed to
- Network with people like them, if they are a minority this can be particularly helpful
- Cultivate and strengthen their existing friendships
- For entertainment – stress relief
- To be creative – stress relief
- Explore their identity, discovering the person they want to be and life they want to live
- Develop real world skills that could make them more employable (Social media is a big part of business these days)
- Learn about a variety of topics (including positive, healthy ones)
Negative impacts of Social Media – particularly in adolescence
I suspect you may already be aware of this one, but we shall list them anyway, just in case. Here are some of the negative impacts that could come from social media use in adolescence…
- Online bullying
- Putting out content that impacts on your reputation
- Having personal information shared online
- Online scams
- Comparison (not just peers) to other people’s “highlight reel”
- Peer pressure
- Sleep disruptions (if spending too much time online)
- Feeling disconnected from the world (if spending too much time online)
Some of these risks can be reduced (not eliminated) through some different tips or strategies.
Tips to reduce the negative impacts of Social Media whilst maximising on the benefits for Adolescents
Because of all that comes with being a teenager, they are particularly attracted to social media. So we, as adults, may be able to have a relaxed relationship with social media, or to not be on there at all and that is healthy and works for us, however that doesn’t mean it will work for our teen. One of the best things you can do is to follow these rules yourself, to set the example, modeling a positive healthy relationship with social media.
Setting time boundaries around social media use
Research suggests that more than 3 hours a day on social media has been found to have an increased risk for mental health difficulties, however it is unclear if those with mental health difficulties are not using social media more because of their challenges or if it is social media causing it. Nonetheless, I think it safe to say that having boundaries around how much time an adolescent spends on social media is likely to assist them in learning boundaries for themselves that positively impact on their wellbeing. This may work best as a discussion with your teen, on how to have boundaries around social media so that it doesn’t impact on their school work, chores, sleep, meals etc. Screen time tracking on your teens phone can be a great way for you both to monitor this.
Discuss social media etiquette
Much like in person, social media has the same consequences of poor behaviour and so it may be helpful to have a discussion with your teen about the potential consequences of gossiping, rumors, bullying, posting personal information online, what is and isn’t safe to share with online friends etc. This would be largely common sense, but we know teenagers have some challenges with impulsivity and thus the most common sense option might not come to mind for them. Exploring these topics with them can be helpful in facilitating long term thinking, and allows an opportunity for you to let them know they can come to you if any of these things happen to them.
Encourage in-person connections
Whilst social media can be great for teens to connect, it is not a replacement for in person or face to face connections so creating opportunities for this to occur, and encouraging any expressed interest for in person connections is likely to support them in maintaining these connections offline. This is particularly important for those adolescents who may exhibit social phobia.
Discuss your own experiences with social media
This can be an opportunity to share that you are following all the same rules you are setting with them around social media, that you are doing these to support and maintain your own mental wellbeing. Ask what they enjoy about using social media, and make sure you share some of your positives as well (this helps them to not get straight on the defense). Then you can share about your own experiences of comparison and reminding the young person that social media is rampant with fake news, and edited images, so that they should ask themselves very good questions about the reliability of the source and as to whether an image is really what bodies look like in real life.
Help them explore how social media is making them feel
A sign that social media is having a negative impact on our mental health is when we find ourselves scrolling on autopilot, and feeling pretty crappy afterwards. Your adolescent may be feeling this, but not have the self awareness to notice. It may be helpful to encourage them to reflect on how they feel before, during and after being on social media to increase their self-awareness. Also, you could encourage them to get deliberate about who and what accounts they follow – so they can unfollow or unfriend those that are having a particularly negative impact on their mood such as making them feel bad about themselves, too negative all the time etc. Likewise you can encourage them to follow accounts they find inspiring.
Encourage turning off notifications
Social media’s algorithms know when your teen has not been on for a while and it will purposely send (usually very unimportant) notifications to pull them back in. This is something I would also discuss with your teen so that this can be changed in their phone settings to allow them to be offline whilst studying, sleeping, having a family meal, etc. A less extreme version of this would be to encourage them to put their phone on do not disturb during these times too.
Some signs that social media might be impacting them negatively if you notice a particularly big shift in…
- their energy and enthusiasm for things in their life offline that they used to enjoy
- Noticing they are having trouble communicating in offline social situations
- Reduced engagement in offline activities like sport, art, hobbies or homework
- Increase in negative self talk, social comparison and judgmentalness
- Aggressiveness when asked to put their phone down to do something else
Like most things in life, everything is not all bad or all good and social media and adolescent mental health can experience many different outcomes.
Author: Samantha Sheppard, B Psych (Hons).
Samantha is a registered psychologist with experience working with children and adolescents (and their families), young adults and adults. Samantha empowers others with their mental health using a non-judgemental, compassionate approach, and particularly resonates with a social and emotional wellbeing framework.
To make an appointment with Samantha Sheppard try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.