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Blaming Social Media for Teen Depression Is Too Easy

Is Instagram really behind teen girls’ self-dissatisfaction?

Key points

  • Self-satisfaction rests on social comparison—how we measure up to those around us.
  • Social comparisons are particularly intense in teens who are forming a new sense of self in relation to their social world,
  • New research shows that teen girls' memories hold onto negative descriptions of themselves more than positive ones.
  • Effective regulation of social media will require attention to the embedded nature of self-comparison and low-value female norms.

Self-satisfaction is often thought to reside in a person’s own solid assessment of their authenticity, values, goals and attachments, yet a crucial element is how we think we measure up against others. Is our life “on track” in terms of career, relationships, possessions? How we answer depends on how other people we know, particularly our close or long-term friends, are doing in their lives. Should we be satisfied with our appearance? Again, we assess this by comparing our weight, our hair, our clothes, our skin to that of friends and family. In short, self-satisfaction does not derive from our absolute values alone; it is largely dependent on whether we believe we rate higher or lower in comparison to others. [1]

Social media, with its language of boasting and gloating, brings a new force, salience, and global breadth to social comparisons. With recent reports of increasing rates of depression among teens—particularly teen girls—social media platforms such as Instagram have been held to account for infecting teens with self-dissatisfaction leading to anxiety and unhappiness. Even as psychologists admit that correlation of teen girls’ depression rates with the rise of social media does not prove social media causes this rise, their approach is often, “Social media must be the cause, because I don’t see what else it could be.” [2]

Few would argue that social media provides purely positive fodder. In fact, we can think of social media as largely a junk food diet of gloss and glitter. Even when teen girls know they are looking at carefully posed photos, often modified and always superficial, they feel deficient in comparison. Their knowledge that they are looking at what they sometimes call “masks," or that they are comparing their messy subjectivity to others’ polished presentations, does not help. [3] Teen girls speak about “cringebingeing”—spending hours wallowing in envy of “people," or social media profiles—that ooze glamor but which they neither value nor admire.[4] Nevertheless, to get a grip on causal links between self-dissatisfaction and social media, we need to focus on persistent features of teen girls’ experience.

Teens are exquisitely sensitive to social comparisons. Long before teen girls used social media, and a decade before the first widely available smartphone, girls looked at images of girls and women in magazines and on TV programs and ended up feeling low as they compared themselves to the models. In 2001, parents, teachers, and politicians in the UK called for a “Body Image Summit” to address what they saw as a self-image crisis in teen girls caused by unrealistic models. In 2007, public concern drove the American Psychological Association to form a task force to report on a complementary issue: the sexualisation of girls in images on page and screen. [5] The cultural pressures on girls to look a certain way, to please and become what others desire, were seen everywhere. It was the messages rather than the messaging vehicle that were seen to cause teen girls’ self-dissatisfaction. They could never match up to the cultural ideal based on looking a certain way; and their efforts to do so came at great psychological cost.

Teens are primed to compare themselves to others and shape themselves to others’ ideals because they are putting together new identities, drawing from their friends, from their own celebrity idols, and from those their friends admire. They are particularly susceptible to the impact of approval and disapproval—on screen, on the page, on social media, and in person—because they themselves are unsure of how they look and who they are.

When teens are happy, and when they feel their life is going well, they are more likely to engage in downward comparisons (who’s worse off?) than in “up comparisons” (who’s better than me?). When they are down, everyone seems to have more than they do and most comparisons leave them feeling deficient.

A recently available [6] prepublication paper takes this further, showing that teen girls have a better memory for negative words used to describe them than positive ones. This is very different from the healthy narcissism of robust adults who are primed to make downward comparisons and see others as less than themselves and are quick to forget or dismiss negative descriptions others give of them. [7] Instead, negative words embed themselves in a teen girl’s self-concept, and prompt her to see herself as “less than” others.

Social media platforms as influential as Instagram should be regulated, but criticism of social media, and any effective regulation of it, needs to draw on the complexity of self-comparison and self-dissatisfaction. Negative mood from demeaning feminine norms will not disappear when social media platforms clean up their acts.

Moreover, we should not ignore the positive impact of inspiring upward comparisons as teens look to others who are “more than” they are. Recent work I did with The Female Lead shows that when teen girls followed profiles of women who represent their interests and aspirations, their mood improved. [8] They themselves cleaned up the “cringebingeing” profiles, and platform algorithms started to work in their favor. If social media is to be regulated, we need to be informed as to how it might support teen well-being by fighting unhealthy cultural norms, not only how it might harm.

References

1. H. Blanton, B.P. Buunk, F. Gibbons, & H. Kuyper (1999), “When better-than-others compare upward”, Journal of Personality and social psychology, 76 (3): 420-430.

2. Jonathan Haidt, (2021, November 21), “The Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls”, The Atlantic.

3. Terri Apter (2022), The Teen Interpreter. W.W. Norton.

4. The Female Lead Research Report, Disrupting the feed: Teenage girls' use of social media: An intervention to improve social media health (2019), London: The Female Lead.

5. Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. 2007 APA.

6. M.E. Moses-Payne, G. Chierchia, S.-J. Blakemore, (2022), “Age-related changes in the impact of valence on self-referential processing in female adolescents and young adults”, Cognitive Development, 61.

7. M.E. Moses-Payne, G. Chierchia, S.-J. Blakemore, (2022), “Age-related changes in the impact of valence on self-referential processing in female adolescents and young adults”, Cognitive Development, 61.

8. The Female Lead Research Report, Disrupting the feed: Teenage girls' use of social media: An intervention to improve social media health. 2019 London: The Female Lead.

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