9 Ways Social Media Can Negatively Impact a Teen’s Mental Health
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In our busy modern lives, it can seem like social media is hard to escape. For teens, being present on the same platforms as your friends can make the difference between feeling accepted and having FOMO. Depending on which apps you’re using, there are an endless number of factors that can make social media both a positive and negative aspect of your life.

Problematic or excessive social media is a real concern, particularly for younger users. The design of platforms can contribute to this issue. In the 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma,” tech experts who worked at major platforms revealed that the algorithms are designed to keep users scrolling, potentially reinforcing addictive behavior. 

Social media and teen mental health: Data

There’s no shortage of peer-reviewed studies associating excessive social media use with worse mental health outcomes for teens, as highlighted by the Surgeon General’s 2023 advisory. First of all, they’re using it a lot: As of 2021, eighth and tenth graders now spend an average of 3.5 hours per day on social media. In another survey, more than a third of teens aged 13 to 17 said they use social media “almost constantly.” 

With increased use comes increased risk. Adolescents who spend more than three hours per day on social media face double the risk of experiencing poor mental health outcomes, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. More specifically, greater social media use predicted poor sleep, online harassment, poor body image, low self-esteem and higher depressive symptom scores for the 14-year-olds in another study, with a larger association for girls than boys. 

More time spent on social media was found to increase these negative experiences and, in proportion, depression symptom scores. Poor sleep and online harassment played significant roles in increasing the other symptoms, and other patterns and relationships between them were apparent. For example, teens tend to keep their phones near their bed at night. Scrolling after bedtime and hearing notifications are both ways social media can interfere with sleep. 

Social media use isn’t bad for teens across the board. It can lead to positive results like increasing social capital, building friendships and reducing feelings of loneliness. It usually depends on the teen’s personal qualities and the ways they interact with social media. Skills like critical thinking and media literacy are instrumental to keeping social media experiences positive.

Teens are particularly vulnerable to social media because we experience a very sensitive period of brain development during these years. Teens take more risks than people in other age groups, their state of well-being fluctuates quickly and any mental health problems they inherit genetically are likely to present during this time. We form our identities and sense of self-worth as teenagers, so this is also a time when we’re more sensitive to social pressures, peer opinions and peer comparison.

9 ways social media can hurt teens’ mental health

Even with the best intentions, social media can significantly influence a person’s thoughts and behaviors, often without them realizing it. Social media platforms are intentionally designed to engage users and keep them coming back. Algorithms analyze user data to tailor content to individual preferences, reinforcing existing beliefs and behaviors and potentially influencing decision-making.

Here are nine of the biggest ways social media can negatively impact teens’ mental health:

  • Social overwhelm — Overwhelm and drama are some of the biggest problems teens report with social media. Whether it’s celebrity gossip, headline news or feuds between friends, it can be hard to filter out upsetting content.
  • Peer pressure and comparison — You may feel like you need to be online at certain times, post content that gets a lot of interactions, look more attractive in photos and have an all-around better life.
  • FOMO — On a related note, social media can heighten feelings of needing to have, be or experience something that most of your peers are in on. FOMO is proven to be associated with depression, anxiety and neuroticism.
  • Lower self-esteem — Spending a lot of time on social media can make you think less of yourself or raise your expectations to an unrealistic level.
  • Body image and disordered eating — The images you see on social media will almost never match what you see in the mirror. Teens who spend too much time scrolling are more likely to experience body dysmorphia or develop eating disorders.
  • Sleep sabotage — Social media use late at night can result in both fewer hours and worse quality of sleep. Poor sleep habits are a sneaky way social media can sabotage your mental health.
  • Harmful content — Most social networks don’t have great ways to keep bad actors from publishing harmful content. Exposure to content about suicide, self-harm or risk-taking challenges normalizes these behaviors.
  • Cyberbullying — Just like in real life, bullies can target certain people online and cause severe depression.
  • Problematic self-diagnosis — Increased social media use has been linked to ADHD diagnosis, but we still don’t fully understand the correlation. Watching videos about other people’s experiences can lead you to “pathologize” or start to see more of certain symptoms in yourself, whether or not they were there before.

How therapy can help

Talking with a therapist you trust can help you form a healthier and more intentional relationship with social media. As you work through problems like the ones mentioned above, your therapist will ask you questions to help you reflect and gain self-awareness. You might come up with some realistic guidelines to help you stay in control of your social media use or find better ways to have conversations about social media and mental health with your parents.

Some additional ways therapy can help teens improve their relationship with social media include:

  • Recognizing patterns of use and the impact of social media on their mental health. Teens can become more aware of how social media affects their thoughts, emotions and behaviors in therapy to ultimately make more informed choices.
  • Therapists can help teens develop healthy coping strategies for dealing with the negative aspects of social media, such as cyberbullying, comparison and validation-seeking behavior.
  • Therapy can help teens set healthy boundaries around their social media use. This may include limiting screen time, establishing guidelines for engaging with content, and creating a healthy balance between online and offline activities.
  • Therapy can help teens address underlying issues, such as anxiety, depression or low self-esteem, that may be contributing to unhealthy social media use. By addressing these issues, teens can reduce their reliance on social media for validation or escape.

At Lightfully, we recognize that the negative impact of social media can be immediate and long lasting. We take a unique approach to treatment called process-based therapy (PBT) that focuses more on building up healthy core processes than “curing” or reducing symptoms. You are much more than a diagnosis here. Lightfully Teen is a place where each person is seen, heard and valued as their authentic selves.

Perhaps one of the best and most effective parts of our structured outpatient and Residential Treatment (RTC) programs is the group therapy sessions. While you’re rethinking your social media habits, you can hear from other teens who are doing similar work. When you’re ready to participate, you’ll be surprised at the feedback and encouragement you get from your cohort.

Social media can be both helpful and hurtful, and it’s a part of life today that’s hard to avoid. Treatment can help you build resilience to the negative impacts of social media and maintain better mental health in your life both online and off. 

Want to see if Lightfully is the right place for you? Contact us to get a free assessment or ask us any questions.

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