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Teens Who Cut Down on Social Media Have Higher Self-Esteem

As depression hits record rates, cutting out social media makes a big difference.

Key points

  • In 2021, nearly 3 in 5 U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless, in large part due to the internet.
  • A recent study showed that teens who reduce their social media by just 50 percent significantly improve their self-esteem.
  • Healthy discussions about the effects of social media use can make a major difference in teens' lives.

I recently wrote a post about how the increase in teenage social media use can be connected to increased levels of depression and anxiety in our youth. The “social” connections they think they are making on these platforms often are making them feel worse and even more alone.

A few weeks after my post, the CDC released a report that showed alarming increases in teenage depression, especially with teenage girls. It stated that “nearly 3 in 5 (57 percent) U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021—double that of boys, representing a nearly 60 percent increase and the highest level reported over the past decade.”

It is easy for us as parents, caregivers, and even clinicians to become overwhelmed and almost paralyzed by these sorts of reports. Things seem to keep getting worse, and sometimes our teenagers’ problems seem impossible to fix. However, we can always find discrete steps to take towards positively impacting our teens’ mental health. On the body image front, a brand new study published by the American Psychological Association gives us insight on how we can help teenagers have better self-esteem, which is one of the factors impacting the concerning rates of depression.

The study, led by Gary Goldfield, Ph.D., showed that teens who reduced their social media use by just 50 percent over the course of a few weeks saw “significant improvement in how they felt about both their weight and their overall appearance compared with peers who maintained consistent levels of social media use.”

Goldfield explained, “Social media can expose users to hundreds or even thousands of images and photos every day, including those of celebrities and fashion or fitness models, which we know leads to an internalization of beauty ideals that are unattainable for almost everyone, resulting in greater dissatisfaction with body weight and shape.”

While most people, even teenagers, would probably admit that they know the majority of the pictures they look at on social media aren’t helping their self-confidence, the concrete evidence found in this study about cutting back social media usage to drastically improve self-esteem are incredibly encouraging. It gives us a tactical way to help teenagers actually get better.

Now, you may be reading this thinking something along the lines of, “Great, I’m glad there is a solution, but how do I actually cut my teen’s social media usage in half?” A study by Common Sense Media found that teenagers are spending a whopping eight hours a day on screens. Of course, some of this time is for school work, but if you have a teen, you know most of this time is spent on some form of social media. But, if we can help our teens just cut back somewhat on their screen time and social media usage, I have found in my years as a psychiatrist, my experience as a father, and now backed up by this new body image study, we can make a big difference in improving their mental health.

Tips to help teens cut back on social media

In my previous post, I shared some tips to cut back on social media, but have identified a few more below that parents can put in their tool belts to try and find something that will work with their teen:

  1. Encourage face-to-face interactions: It’s easy for parents to feel like a taxi service. Once kids reach school age, most of our afternoons are spent shuttling our kids around from school to practices to tutoring. And adding more to our plates can often seem impossible. However, if we can get our kids hanging out with their friends more in real life, rather than online, it can be an easy way to help keep them off of their phones. Ask if you can drop them off for a movie with a friend or take them out to grab a smoothie. When your teen expresses the desire to go out somewhere, try your best to make it happen. The more fun they can have in the real world with a friend, the less likely they are to sit there scrolling on their phones alone.
  2. Utilize a rewards system: Rewards may have worked with your child during potty training, and they might work well now. Has your teen been asking for something incessantly? Identify a reward together that they can receive if they can cut down their social media usage by a certain amount of time a day. While 50 percent is the goal according to the study, you don’t need to get there immediately. Even cutting back by an hour or two a day can make a big difference.
  3. Turn off notifications: When we see a notification pop up on our phones, our attention immediately gets diverted from whatever we were doing to our screens, and this is especially true with teens. A new like or a message from a friend can make them open up an app that will easily distract them for hours. Have your teen turn off notifications for a few days to see if it cuts down on their social media use. If they aren’t getting that dopamine hit from seeing a notification on their phone, they will be able to stay more focused on the task at hand and connected with the real world.
  4. Have a family competition: Your teen probably isn’t the only person in the house who is using social media too much. While this study was conducted on teenagers, I wouldn’t be surprised if it produced similar results with adults. All of us could benefit from cutting down on our screen time in one way or another, so try having a healthy competition with your family for a week or a month about who can cut down on their social media usage the most. Utilize the “screen time” tracker on your phones and at the end of every day, see who was able to resist the temptation to pull up Instagram or TikTok. Come up with the winner’s prize as a family; maybe that person gets to pick the location (within reason) of the next family dinner at a restaurant or they get a gift card to the store of their choice.

Lastly, I want to reiterate how important it is for us as parents and caregivers to be good examples with our own social media usage and body image and have open, positive conversations with our teens about tough subjects like this. Talk to your teen about their social media use. Show them this study and talk about the findings. Ask if they agree or disagree with what the researchers found.

If you are struggling with knowing how to approach your teen about their body image, social media usage, or if nothing is working to cut their online time back and you see it negatively affecting their self-esteem, reach out to a professional. Many mental health professionals meet with teens and parents together, and can help you have a healthy discussion that could drastically improve your teen’s life.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


“Reducing Social Media Use Improves Appearance and Weight Esteem in Youth with Emotional Distress,” by Helen Thai, BA, McGill University; Christopher Davis, PhD, Wardah Mahboob, MA, Sabrina Perry, BA, and Alex Adams, BA, Carleton University; and Gary Goldfield, PhD, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Psychology of Popular Media, published online Feb. 23, 2023.

US teen girls experiencing increased sadness and violence. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 13, 2023. Accessed February 28, 2023.

Why young brains are especially vulnerable to social media. American Psychological Association. (2022, August 25). Retrieved from

Rideout, V., Fox, S., Peebles, A., & Robb, M. B. (2021). Coping with COVID-19: How young people use digital media to manage their mental health. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense and Hopelab

Thai, Helen & Davis, Christopher & Mahboob, Wardah & Perry, Sabrina & Adams, Alex & Goldfield, Gary. (2023). Reducing Social Media Use Improves Appearance and Weight Esteem in Youth With Emotional Distress. Psychology of Popular Media. 10.1037/ppm0000460.

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