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How Social Media Affects Mental Health in Adolescents

The positive and negative effects of social media use.

Key points

  • The digital world has influenced social development during adolescence in Millennials and Generation Z more so than previous generations.
  • Studies show that teens now spend less time engaging in face-to-face social interactions due to the increase in digital media use.
  • Despite the benefits of social media, exposure to it can lead to negative outcomes, such as narcissistic tendencies.

Adolescence marks the transition from childhood to young adulthood during which adolescents experience myriad changes in their physical, mental, emotional, and social development.

Ideally, social changes prepare teens for independence and adulthood, shaping and prioritizing their interpersonal preferences over their family as they learn how to resolve conflicts and cope with peer pressure. This is also the time they explore their own identity as they contemplate who they are in the world and how they wish to be seen by others.

During this stage, many teens may experiment with different looks and styles, such as changing their hair color or the type of clothing they wear. In addition to solidifying their cultural identity, they learn how to manage romantic relationships and begin to experience themselves as sexual beings.

Every generation is influenced by its own historical context. But for Millennials and Generation Z, the digital world has impacted their social development compared with previous generations, because social media has altered the landscape of social interactions as many of us knew it.

For example, a study conducted by Jean Twenge and her colleagues from San Diego State University showed that a group of high school seniors transitioning to college in 2016 spent less than an hour engaging in face-to-face social interactions (e.g. going to parties, movies, or simply riding the car together) compared with high school seniors studied during the late 1980s. This decline was determined to be attributable to an increase in digital media use. Additionally, the study found that teens who spent the most time on social media and less on in-person social interactions expressed the highest levels of loneliness.

Similarly, a Common Sense media report from 2018 found that 81 percent of adolescents now use social media, and more than one-third reported using social media sites several times within an hour. These numbers have increased in the last few years due to the accessibility of smartphones.

The Negative Effects of Social Media

Research on the effects of social media on youth has indicated how related behaviors correlate to mental health symptoms. For example, a 2018 survey of eighth-graders found that those who spent 10 hours or more a week on social media were 56 percent more likely to express being unhappy than those who spent less time, with a higher emotional investment in social media corresponding to higher levels of anxiety. In another national survey, more than 1 in 10 teens reported they had been cyberbullied.

For many, Facebook may have changed the meaning of friendship. Teens look to social media properties such as Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok for social networking, along with references for behaviors and appearance.

Despite the benefits that social media presents, such as connecting with others and having easy access to information, there are many downsides to social media exposure. Indeed, extensive research has examined social developmental processes in relation to the effects of social media use. For example, a study on media interaction suggested that communicating through Facebook may have negative implications for subjective well-being, thus undermining users’ affective states and enhancing envy.

Teens who consume social media at a large scale could be at risk of developing narcissistic tendencies, making them more prone to anxiety and depression. In addition, exposure to idealized images on social media, especially those portrayed by influencers on Instagram and TikTok, may fuel negative social comparisons, inasmuch as they tend to share only the most glamourous lifestyles and exciting events to ignite the curiosity of other adolescents who then become followers.

Shutterstock / Africa Studio
Source: Shutterstock / Africa Studio

Influencers Aren’t Immune to Negative Consequences

Unlike famous celebrities, influencers are seen by teens as more realistic and trustworthy. In turn, this phenomenon attracts marketers that hire influencers to make more posts to promote their products and services.

However, many young influencers might not be ready for the increased fame and the overwhelming number of followers as their lives become more scrutinized. They could quickly transition from the stage of being adored by their followers to rapidly falling favor, inasmuch as just a single negative post filtering through social media can reverse their standing from being embraced and loved to being criticized or even hated.

Many influencers are still going through adolescence themselves, which makes them especially susceptible to rejection from others. They may experience various phases as they try to cope with fame, escalating from first loving it, to becoming addicted, to posting on social media media, and later struggling with adapting to increased attention from followers by being famous. Fame may be very hard for them to adapt to since it brings along a lack of personal privacy, mistrust of others, and a growing sense of isolation. Such feelings may lead to mental health challenges and risky behaviors.

Sharing Isn’t Always Caring

Social media is intertwined with interpersonal relationships through the sharing of content, which can impact friendships, relationships with family, or romantic interests.

The common term “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out) can refer to the feeling that one could be excluded from social events. In previous generations, the feeling of being left out was less detrimental to teens’ mental health, given fewer numbers of people involved in a given situation versus an infinite social media microcosm. In today’s social media world, FOMO can have an even deeper negative effect, with an amplified audience opening the doors to unmitigated and unwelcome opinions and comments.

On the other hand, social media might represent a protective factor for many teens’ lives as they find online communities that embrace them, thus providing the benefits of being able to relate freely and practice social interactions. This can translate into an opportunity for boosting their socio-emotional wellbeing by supporting their level of confidence and reducing loneliness. Like most things in life, finding a balance is crucial when adolescents are permitted to have developmentally appropriate, time-limited access to positive social media and online content.

Another positive aspect of social media use can be the opportunity for youngsters to be exposed to creative expressions, like sharing their artistic, musical, or writing talents with the world. In addition, social media can help teens stay more connected to current events in their community.

Social media is here to stay, so the solution can’t entail preventing children from using it. Instead, it is the duty of parents and educators to talk about it with children and adolescents, and teach them about appropriate behavior during online and social media interactions, along with explaining the potential positive and negative effects.

References

Anderson, M, & Jiang. J. (2018). Teens, Social Media and Technology. Pew Research Center.

Twenge, J. M., Spitzberg, B, H., Campbell, K., W. (2019). Less in-person social interaction with peers among U.S. adolescents in the 21st century and links to loneliness. Sage Journals. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407519836170

Vanucci, A., Flannery, K. M & Obannessian, C. M. (2017). Social Media use and anxiety in emerging adults. Journal of Affective Disorders, 207, 163-166.

www.apa.org

www.commonsensemedia.org

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