Technology and Society
Social Media Use and Mental Health in Youth
Reba Chaisson, PhD March 14, 2021
- The Ubiquity of Social Media
- Social Media and the Mental Health Landscape
- The Downsides of Social Media Among Children and Adolescents
Scholars, mental health specialists, and medical practitioners have engaged in many debates over the last 10 years about social media use among children and young adults. Although they often use research or their own experiences with patients to ground their views, their ideas vary about whether social media has had positive or negative effects among young people. In this article, you’ll find information on both the benefits and perils of social media as it relates to mental health and on options some professionals have proposed for coexisting with what has become a mainstay in contemporary life.
The Ubiquity of Social Media
As soon as I downloaded [TikTok], I was immediately hooked. I mean I’m telling you I couldn’t stop scrolling.1
Now the oldest of the social media technologies, Facebook was designed in 2004 as a digital platform where communities of young adults could keep in touch and share ideas with friends and family anywhere in the world. Since then, the number of popular social media platforms—such as Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp, TikTok, Tumblr, and Reddit—has increased substantially. Some, such as the original iteration of Facebook, focus on textual interaction, but others use images and videos as primary forms of communication. Central to all platforms, however, is a drive to reach as many of the 7 billion people in the world as possible and to keep them engaged with streamed content.
To accomplish this, the companies have adopted a variety of strategies to captivate their users. Commercialization is one example; social media companies have leveraged member data in order to commodify user communities—priming members to purchase products and services. As a result, Facebook, Twitter, and other sites now compose a large segment of business marketing portfolios and enact plans designed to expand their company’s reach to the 3.6 billion social media users2 worldwide who spend 2 or more hours3 on social platforms every day. While it is difficult to dismiss the significance of reach to a company’s bottom line, we must also pause to consider what, if any, human costs lie in the wake of this strategy.
Social Media and the Mental Health Landscape: A World of Comparison
About 792 million people worldwide have experienced a mental condition, roughly 10.7% of the world’s population.4 Among those with a mental condition, anxiety and depression are the most common, with a little over one-third being diagnosed with the former and just under one-half diagnosed with the latter. Anxiety is characterized by apprehension, worries about the future, feeling on edge, difficulty concentrating, and an inability to relax, while depression manifests in reduced self‑esteem and confidence and feelings of low self‑worth. Often, individuals with depression also experience social isolation and feelings of loneliness due to difficulties connecting with others and establishing and maintaining fulfilling relationships.
A key question in contemporary debates about social media use among young adults is whether this particular type of socialization (i.e., via social media) affects rates of anxiety and depression worldwide.
Can Social Media Be Good for Mental Health?
The short answer is yes. Some research indicates that social media can facilitate communication for those who find it difficult to interact face‑to‑face. Indeed, some findings indicate that patients’ use of social media alleviates their feelings of isolation and loneliness.
For example, in their study of social media use among patients with schizophrenia, Miller et al.5 concluded, “Many current users agreed that these technologies help them interact/socialize more…and disagreed that these technologies make symptoms worse.” In addition, Gowen’s6 study of young adults with mental conditions revealed that they use social media and expressed “high interest” in sites tailored to their population “with specific tools designed to decrease social isolation and help them live more independently.” In yet another study of patients with serious mental illness, Brusilovskiy et al.7 found “greater frequency, intensity and longevity of social media were associated with higher levels of community participation,” such as civic engagement and voting.
Broadly, these and related studies suggest that mental health patients often use social media as a learning resource and that it supports them in areas where they feel vulnerable. In sites tailored to their needs, patients can interact with others, perhaps with anonymity, and not worry about encountering stress‑inducing posts. That freedom can add a level of normalcy to their lives, instill confidence, and allow them to engage with their communities. Together, these benefits have the potential to reduce their isolation and feelings of loneliness.
What Are the Perils of Social Media Among Children and Adolescents?
Although some research has shown that social media use among young adults can be beneficial and may positively affect mental health, other research has identified its potential negative consequences. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every ten 12‑ to 17-year‑olds has some type of diagnosed anxiety disorder, and one out of 15 has depression.8 Sadly, these numbers have grown in recent years.
In one study on the ways people socialize, Twenge et al. analyzed responses to several survey questions posed to twelfth graders in 2012 and 2017.9 In addition to inquiring about their in‑person social interactions and social media use, the questions asked students if they “agreed” or “mostly agreed” with the statement “A lot of the time, I feel lonely.” The analysis revealed that adolescents who scored low on in-person social interaction and high on social media use reported significantly higher levels of loneliness than those who scored low on both. This suggests that there is something particular to social media usage that increases loneliness.
These results are not anomalous. Other researchers10 have found that “constant exposure to people’s carefully curated posts led people to make negative comparisons to their own lives.” For adolescents, this manifested in self‑doubt, being uncomfortable in social situations, and a tendency to try to conform in order to be perceived by their peers as a “cool” kid. Indeed, adolescents’ formative years are often defined by the degree to which they are accepted by their peers. Falling shy of this often-elusive goal can make for a lonely existence. Facilitating this are the ever‑present opportunities on social media to compare themselves to others.
Yet other researchers have implicated computer algorithms in the trend toward social comparison within social media.9,10 Adolescents’ customized, algorithmically programmed social media feeds display images and videos depicting socially accepted norms of beauty, hairstyles, body image, jewelry, clothing, and even relationships. Young people constantly compare themselves and their lives to these and question if they measure up. Other social media interactions exacerbate this by priming adolescents to assess their value constantly and quantitatively in terms of the number of likes, dislikes, and comments made about their posts and images.
When taken together, such evidence points to the idea that social media feeds and interactions throw kids off-balance and lead them to emphasize what are often superficial shortcomings in themselves while disregarding their positive character traits. In this framework for assessing self-worth, metrics such as creativity, grades, fine arts talent, and the ways they treat others are all but dismissed or ignored. Often, the result is intense social comparison that induces or exacerbates anxiety disorders and intensifies feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Although people may be tempted to encourage the young people in their lives to simply shut down their computers and delete social media apps from their phones, that approach lacks a nuanced appreciation for the realities of being an adolescent in contemporary times. Belonging is more than just a word for this age group. It is a quest to be a part of something, to be connected to something—it is an identity. Some experts suggest that perhaps kids can reduce their time on the apps and access fewer platforms.11 This is a start. The challenge is balancing it with research that has found social media to be quite beneficial to people with mental health conditions.
Recommendations for Mitigating Social Media Risks to Children and Young Adults
Unfortunately, given the structure of current social media landscapes, most adolescents and young adults are unable to use media platforms without encountering peer pressure, negative posts, addictive activities, and alluring advertising.12 This does not mean, however, that options are not available to help protect young people in these environments.
Some common suggestions offered by researchers13 and psychiatric practitioners for mitigating the risks social media may pose to young people’s mental health tend to highlight actions families may take. They include the following:
- Establishing social media–free zones in the home. The inability to access social media apps in the family room and at the dinner table naturally constrains the amount of time children can spend on social media.
- Encouraging children to do something when they are off‑screen. Ideas include calling a friend rather than texting them, going for a walk, or reading a book.
- Encouraging children to think about what they are missing in the real world. Perhaps they will come to realize that time is finite and face‑to‑face relationships are invaluable.
- Encouraging children to listen to music or a podcast, do yoga, or meditate to relax and “develop spirituality.”
- Encouraging young people to learn a new skill, such as calligraphy or painting
- Encouraging children to learn to play a new musical instrument
In addition to this focus on individual- or family-oriented interventions, I pose two other options that address the issue at a larger social level. One option is creating legislation to temper the type of ads and advertising techniques used to grab and hold users’ attention. This could help mitigate the effects of social media discussed here. An element of such legislation could be limits imposed on the social media company’s use of its members’ data—perhaps disallowing it unless parents and young adults explicitly opt in.
In the current absence of enforceable policies to moderate the market, another—perhaps more immediate—option is a mandate requiring businesses and social media companies to contribute some percentage of their profits to organizations that support the mental health of young people. Recipients could include nonprofits such as the Organization for Social Media Safety, which educates young people on responsible social media use. Other candidates could include mental health organizations, hospitals, and community‑based centers that research and care for young mental health patients with anxiety and depressive disorders.