- This week’s news broke that Instagram knew their platform harmed teen girls’ body image and negatively affected depression and anxiety.
- A recent study of teens at the start of the pandemic lockdown showed that more positive online interactions were associated with less loneliness.
- Being realistic, having open conversations about online interaction, and facilitating positive experiences support adolescent well-being.
This has been quite a week for social media and teen mental health. On September 14, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that researchers inside Instagram knew their platform was making teen girls feel bad about themselves, highlighting body image issues in particular. Teens surveyed by the social media giant reported that Instagram use makes their depression and anxiety worse.
A day later, TikTok announced features to support teen mental health on their platform, including a referral to Crisis Text Line when teens use the word “suicide.” The platforms finally recognize that their content has a serious effect on teens’ emotional worlds and could be making mental health problems worse.
In the wake of all this, it’s easy for families to jump on the bandwagon of horror, terrified of what social media is doing to our children. But not all screen time exacerbates body image issues and making teens generally feel bad about themselves.
Researchers from the University of California Berkeley, University of Oregon, and Central Michigan University surveyed 735 adolescents ages 11-17 in Peru over 5 weeks during the early stage of the COVID-19 lockdown (April-May 2020). They measured technology use, loneliness, and perceived social support (how much support teens feel from family, friends, and significant others). Importantly, they also classified how positive and negative teens’ online social experiences were. They then looked at the relationships between online experiences, perceived support, and loneliness.
Overall, they found that online experiences were more positive than negative, and, not surprisingly, more screen time meant both more positive and more negative experiences. They also showed that when teens had more positive online experiences, they perceived greater support from friends and significant others. Finally (drum roll, please) ... negative online experiences were associated with more loneliness and more positive experiences with less loneliness. So if teens felt more supported and like they had a good community online (including through social media and other outlets), they felt less lonely during a lockdown.
In an article for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, study first author Lucia Magis-Weinberg said of the results,
There has been this negative discourse about screen time causing loneliness and depression. But our findings provide more nuance and show that, when used positively, online interactions are actually associated with less loneliness.
What does this say for the period as we come out of lockdown?
- Be realistic. Social media comes with it all—the positive and the negative. If teens are using screens all the time, they will inevitably be exposed to content that makes them feel supported and content that can bring them down. The key is to support and enhance the likelihood for more positive experiences online.
- Teens need to know why social media can make them feel bad. Conversations about social media, body image, and mood should be fundamental in all households with teens. Just like other aspects of adolescent life — social challenges, the potential to interact with alcohol and drugs — conversations about why social media can make us feel bad (e.g., FOMO effects, artificially “perfecting” filters) should be equally common.
- Families can support more positive online experiences. The conversation about how to promote positive online experiences should happen early and often. Interactions that are social and supportive (e.g., having conversations with friends online) should be thought of as different and more special than so-called “doom scrolling.” If teens feel down, they can be encouraged to have more supportive interactions, like texting or sending an audio or video note to a close friend, rather than taking in more negative content. These connection-oriented interactions are likely to improve their mood.
- Invest in more positive online interactions. As a society, we need to invest in technology that supports more positive social interactions for teens. Organizations focused on social good like Girl Up, Youth Activation Project, GripTape are supporting teens sharing their gifts to support one another and make social change. I also see an opportunity to invest further in technology that supports teen mental health. We’ve done a lot, and we need to do more.
As teens move back to school this year, the risks of social media are still there, but the opportunity to use tech platforms for supportive interactions and to combat loneliness can be stronger.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor for free, 24/7.
Magis-Weinberg, L., Gys, C.L., Berger, E.L., Domoff, S.E. and Dahl, R.E. (2021), Positive and Negative Online Experiences and Loneliness in Peruvian Adolescents During the COVID-19 Lockdown. J Res Adolesc, 31: 717-733. https://doi.org/10.1111/jora.12666