The effect of social media on the mental health of America's youth is an urgent public health issue, warns the Surgeon General in an advisory released this past May.
"Teens who use social media for more than three hours a day face double the risk of depression and anxiety symptoms, which is particularly concerning given that the average amount of time that kids use social media is 3 1/2 hours a day," the Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told NPR in a recent interview.
Parents and caregivers share Murthy’s concerns. According to the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital's National Poll on Children's Health, 67% of parents identified social media as a big problem for children and teens.
Yet despite these sobering statistics, teenage internet use continues to grow. A 2022 Pew Research Centre report found that 97% of teens access the internet daily, with 46% saying they use it almost constantly, twice the 2014-2015 level. Social media is the main draw, with YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat being the most popular apps.
Prolonged and intense use of social media can affect our mental health. Dr. Jesse Hanson, Clinical Psychologist and MentalHealth.com's Medical Content Director is concerned about the impact of a reduction in human interaction and connection. "Humans are social creatures," explains Hanson, "we develop our sense of Self through relationships with others. Interactions through a screen do not allow for authentic connection."
The lack of physical experience is another concern. "We can become more associated with our social media identity or digital imprint than we are with our true experience as a human with a physical body," says Hanson. "Humans need touch, eye contact, and sometimes even a hug; when this is taken away, we lose connection with ourselves, humanity, and empathy." The loss of these elements can cause symptoms of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy.
Hanson's concerns about the potentially detrimental effects of social media are particularly relevant to developing adolescent brains. A 2023 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that habitual checking of social media in early adolescence can lead to long-term changes in the brain. These neurological changes can alter how young people respond to the world and cause them to become more sensitive to peer feedback. This heightened sensitivity can lead to feelings of insecurity and reduced self-esteem.
Young people's self-esteem can be impacted further by constant comparisons between their lives and the heavily filtered lives they see on social media. Many of which are unrealistic or unattainable. "Even if we are not thinking about comparisons, we are engaging in them," warns Hanson. Studies have found a positive correlation between the frequent use of social networks and dissatisfaction with body image and low self-esteem.
Hanson does not believe that there is a quick fix for reduced self-esteem. Instead, he advises parents and caregivers to encourage teens to find a balance through pastimes away from screens. Sports, hobbies, and holistic practices can benefit all ages. As Hanson states, "Mindfulness techniques such as focussed breathing and expressions of gratitude help us stay present in our world and increase our sense of self-worth."
Hanson also stresses the importance of parents as role models. "If children see their parents using their mobile phones and social media excessively, it creates a generational imprint that encourages, supports, and intrigues them to do the same."
Hanson's advice to parents includes initiating discussions about social media usage and encouraging honest and open dialogue about how it makes their child feel. Adolescents should be asked to identify accounts that make them feel good and to unfollow those that cause negative thoughts. Parents should also take advantage of the parental controls available on many apps and websites.
It is virtually impossible to remove the influence of social media altogether from a young person's life. Still, by modifying our behavior and adopting relatively simple practices, we can counterbalance the unhealthy elements of social media and device addiction. "For every minute a young person spends in digital space, they need to spend equal time in nature and with friends and family," concludes Hanson.
MentalHealth.com is a patient-first health technology company driven by its mission to make optimal mental health attainable for everyone. With a focus on expanding care access, empowering patient choice, and enhancing care quality, the company delivers innovative solutions that support individuals throughout their mental health journey.