Teens, Social Media and Mental Health

Depressing, Uplifting or Complicated?

“I know there is a lot to be excited about, but I can’t help but feel depressed about all the time that kids are spending online,” a father of a middle schooler said at a workshop recently. Another parent added, “Well, you aren’t alone. I am not sure that social media isn’t making my daughter depressed too!”

Parents everywhere are expressing similar concerns about how digital technologies impact the social and emotional lives of their children. News headlines are quick to reinforce our fears with top stories including, “How Facebook Makes Us Unhappy” and, “Docs Warn Teens about ‘Facebook Depression.'”

To make things confusing, however, these headlines also gained traction within the same year: “Being on Facebook Can Actually Make Us Happier” and “Facebook Isn’t Addictive, It Just Makes People Happy.”

Teenager looking at glowing screen of ipad

Social Media and Mental Health: It’s Complicated

Headlines like these reflect the divergent outcomes of the research itself. A recent study of Australian teenagers showed that the heaviest social media users experience the greatest amount of anxiety related to FOMO (fear of missing out). A University of Michigan study also found that the more college students used Facebook the worse they felt, reflecting a similar association between social media use and depression found among 14 year olds in the U.K. But before we throw social media out the window, a recent study found no association at all while another found that when college students interacted with others on Facebook their “bonding capital” actually increased and feelings of loneliness decreased.

Young people themselves are quick to defend their socially networked lives. The majority of teenagers report that social media helps them feel more connected to their friends and provides critical support during difficult times. Yet at the same time they too are ambivalent about its overall impact on their lives.

Our guess is that if we are waiting for a definitive study telling us whether social media are “good” or “bad” for teens’ mental health, we are going to wait for a long time. Instead, we are likely to start fleshing out the very picture that young people themselves report when you ask them. “It’s complicated.”

That’s not to say that we can’t learn anything from the research that has been done about youth and social media. Here are some of the consistent findings.

How Your Teen Uses Social Media Matters

The divergent outcomes of the research are in part due to differences in how young people spend their time on social media and the nature of the relationships they have there. Not all social networking is created equal. It seems that when social networks and the Internet are used largely to communicate in positive ways with family and friends, the resulting social support actually benefits young people’s mental health. On the other hand, if those relationships feel toxic or if young people experience online harassment as they navigate these friendships this is associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety. In other words, social media seems to magnify the nature and impact of young people’s relationships.

On the other hand hours and hours of scrolling through social platforms full of “weak ties” outside of close circles can increase feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Passively scanning the profiles of happy acquaintances could be the depressing equivalent of sitting alone at a party where everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives. So while parents tend to worry about their kids connecting with people online, it is clear that young people who are using social media for positive relationship building are doing better than those who are using it to escape it entirely.

Your Teen Matters

Facebook is the focus of most current research yet many teens are quickly adopting new platforms. The best thing we can do as parents is to observe, stay connected, and ask questions. The ways that young people navigate social media and respond to what they encounter there are as diverse as our kids themselves. Some teens may be feeling sad and turn to the Internet for much needed support. Others may find that the Internet increases feelings of sadness or loneliness. Some may feel creative and inspired online while others become angry and irritable. These real life signs of how our kids are doing are more important than any study.

Be in conversation with your teen about their socially networked life. Ask them,

  • Why do you use social media?
  • How does it make you feel?
  • Who do you hang out with?
  • What do you like best?
  • What isn’t so great?
  • How would you feel if it went away?

Getting sleep matters

Your teen may be connecting with friends, getting much needed support, and still spending plenty of time with their friends offline. Wonderful! But if they are up all night interacting with friends online they have little opportunity to get into the deep sleep their brains need to recharge. In this case, it isn’t so much the technology that is impacting teens but what it gets in the way of: a good night’s sleep. The part of our brain that helps us regulate emotions, get perspective, and handle stress needs to slumber in order to do its job.

In study after study we see an association between screen time and sleep disruption. Our screens get in the way of snoozing in a few different including changes in melatonin release from all that blue light, the pressure to respond to friends all night, and sleepless busy brain resulting from reading an upsetting headline or text. If your child is living with anxiety or depression pay especially close attention to sleep. While a tech curfew might feel extreme to teens, it is often just what their brains need to get to calm and stay asleep. Get more tips on how to help sleepless teens.

Getting face-to-face matters

Regardless of whether or not social media is lifting your teen up or holding them down, it is clear that face-to-face time with peers is key to their mental health. Extending friendships into the virtual world is just part of growing up today. But it turns out that learning how to navigate conflict, communicate through difference of opinion, and provide critical support to friends takes practice that requires some face-to-face time. If young people start using technology it as a crutch to avoid the messy and important work of learning how to navigate relationships, it robs them of critical practice right when they need it most. Texts can be a great way to start conversations but make sure that face time isn’t just an app on your child’s phone. Here are 7 ways to get face-to-face with your teen.