5 Ways Social Media Helps Depressed Teens Cope
Teens say social media makes them feel better when they're stressed.
Posted Mar 17, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- A national survey of young adults revealed an array of positive effects of social media use during the pandemic and other crises of the past year.
- Social media has enabled young adults to express themselves creatively, find reliable health information, and feel less alone by facilitating contact with family and friends.
- Many young adults have relied on social media to find peers experiencing the same concerns and crises as themselves.
Depression among teens has been steadily increasing for over a decade, and the pandemic has hit many young people hard, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+ and teens and young adults who have had COVID-19 infections in their homes. As we look to interventions to help them cope, a national report from Common Sense Media, the California Healthcare Foundation, and Hopelab shows social media has helped many feel better in the past year — and it’s not just the selfies, TikTok-inspired dance moves, and celebrity-tracking.
Plenty has been written and debated about how much screen time is too much. This survey focused on quality, not quantity, of use, asking teens and young adults ages 14 to 22 about specific activities they do while on social media and how they used it to manage their mental health during the pandemic and the presidential election season, in September and October 2020.
As a clinical psychologist who focuses on adolescent mental health and a mom, I think it is important for us to better understand the complexities of social media use in the context of COVID-19 and its implications on development; it may not be as black and white as we once thought. If social media can foster friendships and social connection, it can help boost a young person’s ability to manage stress and work through problems—life skills needed as kids prepare for a return to “normal” life post-pandemic.
Here are five insights from the report worth keeping in mind the next time you find yourself weighing the benefits and risks of social media for teens.
53% of teens and young adults have used social media to stay connected to friends and family during the pandemic.
Direct messaging (DM) apps like What’s App and SnapChat offer much more connection and social opportunity for young people than passively scrolling and browsing, because they are the closest thing to mirroring in-person social interactions. In the past year, you’ve likely FaceTimed, played an online game, or sent a meme to a friend or family member. How did it make you feel? Chances are it felt good. Consistent with a 2015 PEW report, this new report shows the majority of teens feel social media made them feel more connected to information about both their friends’ lives and their feelings.
21% of teens and young adults say social media helps them feel less alone.
Over half of the young people surveyed were remote learning at the time — a well-documented factor playing into the decline in teenage mental health. While children and adults of all ages are experiencing loneliness during this time, the effects of being isolated from peers are especially significant for teens who are biologically and psychologically driven to be with peers at this stage in life. Think back to when you were in high school and the variety of social interactions you’d have in one day — your friends in the school cafeteria or in the hallways, your lab partner, the kid who sits behind you in math, the extracurriculars you participated in after school. Prior to the pandemic, these interactions were likely to be rich and diverse for many teens; now, unless they knew these friends’ screen names before, they may have lost touch. Many of those surveyed indicated they have cultivated new social-media-based friendships to fill the void, as was also reported by The Washington Post. Given the decrease in everyone’s in-person socialization, now may be the time to let those digital friendships flourish.
85% of teens and young people have used social media to keep up with current events.
Young people have been stereotyped during the pandemic as having a “this won’t happen to me" mindset, yet one in seven surveyed indicated that they or a family member got COVID-19 and have used social media to learn how to protect themselves and others. As headlines abour civil unrest and political divide made their way into social feeds, so did plenty of misinformation that was hard for even adults to discern. But teens are digital natives and very resourceful. Back in April, UNICEF reported that over 20 million youth worldwide already used their COVID-19 chatbot to find validated medical information. Many young people, like 14-year-old Benjamin Kagan from Chicago, are stepping up to help seniors looking for COVID-19 vaccine appointments in their families and communities.
1 in 5 teens and young adults say social media allows them to express themselves creatively.
Social media platforms have become even more important to some young people for support, community, and self-expression over the past two years — especially those experiencing depression. Even before the pandemic, PEW reported that one in four teens were using social media as a creative outlet for sharing art, dance, song, and the written word across multiple platforms — written, audio, visual. Without their usual busy days of school and extracurricular, many teens have more time on their hands to try new things. Adolescence is about forming a sense of identity, after all. In Forbes, Jack Rodgers calls TikTok “an infinite feed of endorphin-inducing content that triggers a strong sense of unity and belonging within us.” Like or not, TikTok has given many teens a creative outlet and a reason to smile.
40% of teens and young adults have looked for "health peers" online – people with similar health concerns to their own.
The proportion of young people with depression who say social media is "very" important for getting support or advice when they need it has more than doubled in the past two years. Often, teens seek others in the digital world who “get it.” For some LGBTQ+ teens, social media can be a lifeline—especially if they are rejected by their parents or have yet to come out. Researchers have even found that engaging more passively with social media (i.e., watching LGBTQ+ YouTube video) allows LGBTQ+ young people to learn about identity-specific issues, become inspired in their coming out process, and increase identity confidence.
It’s clear that the pandemic has allowed teens to explore new ways to engage and experiment with social media in positive ways. As professionals and parents, the more we can show curiosity and openness about our young people’s online activities, the more they will be willing to share what they are doing. Supporting deep social and creative interactions through social media can offer a hopeful path forward in an isolating time.
Fox, J. & Ralston, R. (2016). Queer identity online: Informal learning and teaching experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals on social media. Computers in Human Behavior, 65, 635–642. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2016.06.009.
Lenhart, A. (2015, August 06). Teens, Technology and Friendships. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2015/08/06/teens-technology-and-friendships/.
Orben, A., Tomova, L., & Blakemore, S. J. (2020). The effects of social deprivation on adolescent development and mental health. The Lancet: Child & Adolescent Health, 4(8), 634–640. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30186-3.
Rideout, V. & Fox, S. (2018). National Survey: Digital Health Practices, Social Media Use, and Mental Well-Being Among Teens and Young Adults in the U.S. Hopelab & Well Being Trust. https://assets.hopelab.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/a-national-survey-by-hopelab-and-well-being-trust-2018.pdf.
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. www.commonsensemedia.org/coping-with-covid19
Stringer, H. (2020, October 13). Zoom School's Mental Health Toll on Kids. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/apa/2020/10/online-learning-mental-health.
UNICEF Office of Innovation. (2020). U-Report – COVID-19 outbreak response: facilitating the exchange of lifesaving information for millions of young people across 50 countries and counting. UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/innovation/ureportCOVID19.