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Is social media to blame for the increase in depression and anxiety in teens? It can be hard to tell, given that engagement in social media is a fairly new phenomenon. While many researchers of social media and depression and anxiety agree that the factors that contribute to mental health conditions are too nuanced for a straightforward statement (Keles et al., 2020: 88), we thought we would share some notable research regarding teen mental health and social media use.

Depression and Anxiety in Teens

Depression and anxiety in young people have increased by 70% in the past 25 years. Both conditions have negative consequences on adolescent development. Depression can appear as changes in mood, energy, and sleeping habits, can cause difficulties in memory and decision-making, and can even cause physical pain without any perceptible cause. This is a source of concern, especially in young adulthood, during which adolescents develop and learn to maintain their social and emotional habits.

Social Media Pressure

In 2018, a Pew Research Center survey found that approximately 40% of teens felt pressure to “only post content on social media that makes them look good to others.” And the constantly curated social media stories and feeds often only highlight the best aspects of one’s life, hiding the ordinary days and the struggles teens may actually be experiencing. This online façade of perfection can fuel self-doubt. Some teens may feel as though they have a real self and a fake, “perfect,” online self.

Cultivating Healthy Social Media and Technology Use

When social pressures prevail, we can remind our teens to consider what else may lie outside of the cropped images we see online: are everyone else’s lives really more “perfect” than yours? Why might this person have posted these photos?

Social media can also keep us on our devices longer than we intended. The blue light from screens can interfere with our sleep, too. Enforcing a technology boundary an hour before bedtime can keep social media from interrupting our rest. One study found that adolescents who used their phones or computers before bedtime also reported getting an hour less sleep per night than their peers who did not.

However, social media isn’t all bad. Overall, most teens feel more positive than negative about their online experience: 81% of teens feel more connected to their friends. Additionally, nearly 70% of teens feel that social media is a source of social support. Technology remains an important way to connect with others, and even more so during the pandemic.

What Else Can Parents Do to Help?

In a Child Mind Institute interview with clinical psychologists Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair and Dr. Donna Wick, both suggest the best thing parents can do is get off their phones themselves. Parents set the example of what appropriate technology use is to their kids. Dr. Steiner-Adair advises: “Establish technology-free hours when no one uses the phone, including [parents].” 

Furthermore, limiting your own technology use “also strengthens the parent-child bond and makes kids feel more secure. Kids need to know that you are available to help them with their problems, talk about their day, or give them a reality check.”

The Importance of Social Support and Teen Mental Health

Interpersonal relationships are a key way in which young adults cope with emotional stressors. “[H]aving and using social supports has been directly associated with lower rates of depression, better academic adjustment, and lower rates of substance use” (Camara et al., 2017: 125). In a 2017 study, Spanish researchers found that “emotional support is the most appreciated support in teens and adolescents” and “being listened to is more valued than receiving actual advice” (131-132). By being a present and empathetic listener for your teen, you can provide them support and protection against social stress.

For more tips for Teens and Parents, check out some of our other blogs.