Social media dramatically changed the way we communicate, socialize, and make and maintain friendships. While there are benefits to living in a digital world, there are also risks. Today’s youth miss out on critical social skills development when they spend the majority of their free time connected to and interacting through a screen. They can also get lost in a world of unrealistic comparisons, cyberbullying, and feeling left out.

Research shows an increase in major depressive episodes from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014 in adolescents and from 8.8% to 9.6% in young adults. The increase was larger and only statistically significant only in the age range of 12 to 20 years.1 Clearly depression is on the rise among teens, the question we need to ask ourselves is how much does technology and social media contribute to it?

It’s no big secret that connecting via texting, Instagram, and Facebook can include harsh judgments and comparisons. It’s easier to make statements on a screen that would otherwise be difficult to verbalize face to face. And disjointed shorthand conversations can easily result in misunderstandings. It doesn’t help that digital communication occurs at a rapid pace, one that is difficult to process at times.

One report by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK surveyed 1500 young people, ages 14 to 24, to determine the effects of social media use on issues such as anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and body image. Their findings show that YouTube had the most positive impact, while Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat all had negative effects on mental health.2

While these findings might make you want to delete all social media apps and ban your teen from any digital communication, avoidance isn’t the answer. Teens use social media to connect, seek friendship and support, and even ask for help at times. A better bet is to understand how and why your teen uses social media, stay connected, and know what to look for if your teen shows unexplained emotional changes.

Symptoms of depression

The defining feature of a major depressive episode is a period of at least two weeks during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities.3 For children, you are more likely to see irritability than depressed mood. Other symptoms of depression can include the following:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in normal daily activities
  • Irritable mood
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Diminished self-care
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Excessive guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Physical complaints: headaches, stomachaches
  • Social isolation
  • Recurrent thoughts about death
  • Suicidal thoughts, actions, or plans.

The symptoms of depression exhibited by teens are likely to negatively affect school performance (and even attendance), friendships, and family relationships. The tricky part about teen depression is that it can be gradual. Complaints of difficulty sleeping or frequent headaches seem age appropriate, and in many cases they are. They shouldn’t happen regularly, though. When your typically active and social teen appears isolated, sad, and unreachable, it’s time to get help.

How to help your teen navigate social media

Believe it or not, your teen does want your support and guidance, but it can be hard to strike a balance between helping and trying to fix everything. Follow these tips to support your teen:

Ask questions

Teens need autonomy in their lives, so micromanaging their online use can backfire. The best thing parents can do is engage with their teens. Ask which apps your teen uses the most often and why. Give your teen the space to tell you about the benefits of social media.

When difficult situations arise online, either in the news or in your teen’s life, as your teen how she or he would handle it. What can teens do to make social media a more positive experience?

Model appropriate behavior

Modeling is very important during adolescence. Teens are confronted with new and confusing information almost daily. Growing up in the digital age is no easy task. When parents follow their own rules and stick to their own boundaries, teen learn important lessons in self-care and setting limits.

When teens begin to internalize the importance of limits and boundaries, they can set limits with their peers. This is an important life skill that is sometimes overlooked when teens are stressed, busy, and constantly connected.

Talk often

Parents play a critical role in helping teens process and cope with what they’re seeing online. Talk about your own experiences with social media. Have you ever experienced envy when scrolling through your feed? Have you accepted a friend request that turned out to be a fake profile because you didn’t take the time to look? When parents share their own experiences and talk openly about the highs and lows of social media, teens are more likely to open up about their experiences.

Parents can also help teens broaden their social media experiences by talking about interesting Instagram accounts, Twitter feeds, or Facebook pages that share information about certain topics. It’s too easy for teens to get stuck on the treadmill of social comparisons when engaged with social media. Guiding them toward their areas of interest using social media helps them expand their experiences and learn new things.

Connection is key when it comes to parenting teens in a modern world. The single best thing you can do for your teen is make time for face-to-face connections and simply be present.

Last Updated: Oct 16, 2017