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It's Complicated: Teens, Social Media, and Mental Health

How teens use social media shapes its impact on their mental health.

"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 last week. 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."

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 found among high school age students in the U.S. But before we throw social media out the window, a more 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, one out of five teens disclose feeling worse about their own life because of what they see on social media.

If you are waiting for a definitive study telling us whether social media are "good" or "bad" for teens' mental health, you 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 Teens Use 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. Not all social networking is created equal. It seems that when social networks and the Internet are used largely to communicate with family and friends, the resulting social support actually benefits young people's mental health. Conversely, extensive use of social networking with "weak ties" outside of close circles can increase feelings of loneliness and anxiety. In other words, 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.

Your teen matters.

Not all teens respond in the same way even to social networking and not all teens use the same tools and sites. 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. 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 while others become angry and irritable. These signs are more important than any study.

Be in conversation with young people 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?

Face-to-face time 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. Social media can provide much-needed support, strengthen existing friendships, and offer a sense of belonging for some teens. But if it becomes a tool 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. Make sure that face time isn't just an app on your child's phone.

If your teen is expressing concern or anxiety about being "always connected," there are some protective factors that benefit all young people in the digital age:

Carve out screen-free time. It is more and more difficult to manage screen time by counting minutes. Instead, focus on carving out consistent times to connect without screens. Consider mealtimes, before breakfast, during homework or during car rides.
Lights off, screens off. Sleep deprivation has a clear and detrimental impact on young people's mental health. Make sure that teens unplug before bed and stay off all night.
Build bridges. Encourage your teen to build bridges between their online and offline lives. If they are deep into an online community look for groups in real life that can fuel this passion as well.


Australian Psychological Society. (2015). Stress and Well Being. Psychology Week (8-14) November.

Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, Park J, Lee DS, Lin N, et al. (2013) Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE 8(8): e69841.

Moira, B., Cameron M., and Thomas, L. (2010) Social network activity and social well-being. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1909-1912.

Lenhart, A. (2015). Teens, Technology, and Friendships. Pew Internet and American Life.

Bessiere, K., et. al. (2008). Effects of Internet Use and Social Resources on Changes in Depression. Information, Communication & Society. 11(1) pp. 47 –70

Roy, P. et. al., (2012). Media use, face-to-face communication, media multitasking, and social well-being among 8- to 12-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology, 48(2), Mar 2012, 327-336.

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