What Teens Need Us to Know About Social Media and Mental Health

“Any gratitude I had for screens is gone,” a friend shared this week, “I was thrilled in March…thank goodness for technology! Take the iPad and go forth! Now online meetings, gaming, and chats feel more and more empty, especially with everything going on the world. I just want my kid to unplug for a while. It looks like schools will rely on distance learning in the fall… so we will re-enter the tech heavy abyss.”

She was clearly having a bad day. “This is such a challenging time.” I responded. “Can you think of any good things your kids have been getting out of it?”

“Oh I know there are all kinds of benefits,” she admitted. I’ve just stopped seeing them.”

Teenage boy looking at phone and llistening to music with earbuds in his ears.

Social media, screen time, and parenting in a pandemic.

Every parent I have talked to or worked with since COVID-19 upended our lives has shared some degree of ambivalence about the role that tech has played in their families’ pandemic routines. Most of us can hourly swing from intense gratitude to lamenting the “tech abyss” we find ourselves in. These swings are only likely to intensify in the coming months.

When we are in parenting slogs, it is easy, as my friend noted, to stop “seeing the good.” This is especially true when it comes to screen time worries. Reports of the risks and challenges drown out coverage of the strengths and possibilities. This is especially true when it comes to social media and mental health. Plus daily power struggles can make it harder to notice the positives.

That’s not to say that unplugging isn’t necessary. During times of stress and uncertainty, young people desperately need time for family connection, nature, movement, and sleep to recharge. We cannot hand teens a tablet and see them on the other side of this pandemic without significant consequences to mental and physical health.

That said, “seeing the good in technology” is essential to our kids’ digital wellbeing. It builds the kind of connection and trust that helps teens navigate digital challenges in uncertain times. As our reliance on screens increases in this pandemic, now is the time to ground our parenting in an understanding of the complexity of our kids’ relationships with technology.

Research backs this up. A new report from a team of researchers at the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine provides rich evidence of what we have been sharing in workshops for years and the philosophy that guides our online classes:

Media and technology are not inherently good or bad, they are powerful. The good or bad depend upon how we use them.

What is the relationship between social media and mental health? It’s still complicated.

The report, titled Social Media and Wellbeing: What We Know and Where We Could Go, emphasizes that “one size fits all theories and explanations connecting social media engagement and adolescent wellbeing are bound to fail.” It turns out that both teenagers and their social media usage are, to use language Facebook’s old status update, complicated.

A few key insights from the report are well worth paying attention to as we get deeper into the pandemic and forge a more nuanced approach to parenting our tech hungry teens:

A screen is not a screen is not a screen. A teen is not a teen is not a teen.

In other words, it’s not useful to ask, “Is social media bad for teens?” The actual data we have shows only a small relationship between social media use and mental health outcomes. This doesn’t mean that social media doesn’t influence teenagers. It does mean that it is difficult to untangle all of the factors that contribute a young person’s health and wellbeing. Rather than focus on social media habits alone, it is far more useful to look at them in the context of our kids’ specific strengths and vulnerabilities. Which of their social media habits are supportive and which amplify risk? For example, research shows that some teens have more emotional investment in social media “likes” and “shares.” This makes them more vulnerable to the ups and downs of social rejection online (importantly, these teens also tend to benefit more from positive online connections). They may need more support and coaching than kids who are less invested. LGBTQ+ teens have unique vulnerabilities and unique benefits to being online in ways that differ from their peers. Age matters as well. For example, middle school is a critical time for both digital risk taking and skill building so we might use more hands on strategies with our tweens than with older teens. We also know that when teens go online matters, given that tech disrupts sleep and stress recovery.

Online and offline vulnerabilities are related.

As researcher Dana Boyd  notes, “Access is not a panacea. Not only does it not solve problems, it mirrors and magnifies existing problems we’ve been ignoring.” We cannot separate what happens online to what young people experience offline, including inequitable access to technology itself and the ways that race, gender, and class shape online and offline vulnerabilities and opportunities. Online experiences also often echo and amplify offline ones. For example, data shows that teens experiencing cyberbullying online are likely targeted by the same behaviors in their school hallways. Black teens experience racist and discriminatory comments online that reflect what they experience offline. You get the idea. Blaming phones or TikTok for mental health challenges is not useful if we ignore the real ways that social disconnection, poverty, racism, and white supremacy shape outcomes. It also ignores the way that some vulnerable teens might depend upon social media for much-needed mental health supports and healing as they navigate offline challenges.

We need to collectively identify and invest in opportunities, not just outline risks when it comes to social media and mental health.

We know that young people are going online to seek support but very few are finding developmentally appropriate and evidence-based mental health resources – often because they are difficult to find and access or aren’t designed with them in mind. Let’s support youth-centered tech innovation where we see it happening and demand it where we don’t. Let’s be sure to connect our kids with culturally sustaining mental health resources and support online and offline and advocate for their care. Let’s not let conversations about whether the latest app is good or bad crowd out the conversations we need to have about creating systems that support adolescent mental health online and offline.

Walk the path together.

In some ways, it would be a lot easier to simply say, “Screen time is good” or, “Screen time is bad” and adjust our parenting accordingly. Instead, the research consistently requires that we pay close attention to our kids and to their screens. Kids, of course, still need limits and boundaries that help them unplug, rest, and restore. But these control-strategies often backfire without connection-strategies like communication, coaching, and problem solving. This is why we built our entire online class around the practical strategies of striking this balance. Indeed, constant conflict over screens can do more harm to adolescents than screen time itself. This means we also need to actively work to “see the good” to help our kids learn how to take advantage of online opportunities and digital supports.

While there are days where all of us feel like we have fallen into the tech abyss, the pandemic has also opened our eyes to the kinds of connection, exploration, advocacy, and learning that is happening in online spaces. A parent in our online class on screen time recently shared with me, “I never thought I would say this, but now I am grateful for Minecraft this summer. I see that it is one of the ways that my kid can actually hang out with his friends right now. I theoretically knew that there were some positives to gaming before but now I believe it. We can all feel the difference.”

As schools announce their plans for learning this fall, it is clear that technology will be a big part of it. High levels of stress and uncertainty will not disappear. Teens are stressed and growing up at a time of deep economic uncertainty, global environmental threats, and movements to confront racial and gender violence. In this context, we know that we can’t hand teens tablets and check in with them again in 2021. We also can’t ignore the mental health supports that might emerge from screens during this exceptionally challenging time. When it comes to social media and mental health, the path we need to take is going to be messy, complicated, and specific to our families. But the most clear message from a very complicated field of research is that our kids benefit most when we are on the path together.