It’s no big secret that teens are drawn to social media these days. Teens flock to social media for a multitude of positive interactions—to connect, socialize, and even work through difficult homework assignments together. However, social media can also have negative effects on the mental wellbeing of the people using it.

According to a recent study1 published in the journal EClinicalMedicine, there appears to be a connection between social media use and depressive symptoms in 14-year-olds. To be clear, this study does not prove causation, but the correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms is one that should sound alarm bells.

Researchers used population-based data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study on over 10,000 14-year-olds born between 2000 and 2002 in the United Kingdom to examine the associations between social media use and depressive symptoms.

Overall, girls reported more social media use than boys. More than 43%of girls used social media for three or more hours per day compared to 21.9% of boys. Only 4% of girls reported not using social media, compared to 10% of boys. Results showed that girls were more likely to be involved in online harassment as a perpetrator or a victim (38.7% versus 25.1% for boys), and girls were more likely to have low self-esteem, to have body weight dissatisfaction, and to be unhappy with their appearance. Girls were also likely to report fewer hours of sleep and disrupted sleep.

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The above results are more than enough to hit pause on constant social media usage while reevaluating the costs and benefits of frequent social media use. However, there’s more. The association between social media use and depressive symptoms is perhaps the most alarming: among teens who use social media the most (more than five hours a day), the study showed a 50% increase in depressive symptoms among girls (35% among boys) when their symptoms were compared with those who only use social media for 1-3 hours per day.

While the numbers are certainly higher for girls, we can’t ignore the fact that heavy social media does put boys at risk as well. Social media use was associated with online harassment, sleep disturbance, being happy with appearance, and body weight satisfaction for girls and boys.

This particular study does have some limitations. The data relies on self-reporting regarding sleep habits and social media use. It doesn’t prove that frequent social media use causes increased depressive symptoms, rather it highlights an important correlation. It is possible that 14-year-olds prone to depression engage in social media use as a coping mechanism or to connect with others. 

Social Media Harmful for Young Adults, Too

A separate study from the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that, among 18-22-year-old undergraduate students, decreasing social media use leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness.

Bottom line: It’s important to take an honest look at social media use and evaluate how it affects adolescent mental health and what teens can change. 

Tips for Parents

Parents can empower teens to make healthy decisions by engaging in open and honest communication about social media use and listening to the emotional and social needs of teens.

#1. Share the research

Parental control apps give parents the tools to shut down social media and other apps at specific times and monitor every text, comment, and post on the phone, but relying solely on these tools breaks down trust and can result in power struggles.

Instead of relying on parental control apps, educate your teens by reading the research together. Talk about the benefits of social media and some of the potential downsides. All teens are different. While some might struggle with the culture of comparison on Instagram, others might not be as affected. Get to know how your teen uses social media and how social media affects your teen. It’s important to work with them on their understanding because you won’t have control of their phone, or power over their phone habits, forever.

#2. Create healthy family boundaries around social media use

If heavy social media use is linked with depression in teens and college students, it’s likely that adults are similarly affected. Decreasing social media use to improve emotional functioning should be a family affair.

Track social media use of each family member for a week to determine individual baselines, and set realistic goals to decrease usage by a certain percentage each week. While the iPhone now how has ScreenTime limits that you can set, Instagram and Facebook also have similar functions to help you stop scrolling and start living.

Most importantly, treat your phone the way you’d like to see your child treat theirs. For many families, this means no phones at dinner, whether you are at home or out to eat. Another good rule of thumb is making sure you are never looking at your phone while your child or another family member (or anyone!) is talking to you. How frustrating is it when you are talking to someone and they are staring at their phone and then ask you to repeat what you said? You don’t want to make your kid feel like they aren’t being listened to.

#3. Talk about mental health

Modern teens live busy, pressure-filled lives, and it’s difficult to remember the importance of emotional health when you’re focused on keeping up and meeting expectations. Frequent discussions about mental health, including talking about the symptoms of depression and anxiety and how they can affect teens, empower teens to build coping skills and engage in self-awareness and self-care. These topics can feel uncomfortable to talk about at times, but it’s important that parents aim to de-stigmatize mental health discussions. There have been so many recent wonderful cases of celebrities opening up about different mental health struggles and conditions. Use one of these examples to parlay into a discussion about your teen’s mental health.

#4. Empathize with the challenges in their lives

Peer influence makes it very difficult for teens to turn away from social media, even if social media negatively affects them. Resist the urge to lecture. What your teen needs is empathy and understanding.

#5. Discover activities that engage

While social media can provide opportunities for fun and engagement, many times, we are reach for our phones simply because they are there. A positive way to combat this is by planning activities that make your kid forget about their phone. Whether playing sports, going to the movies, hiking with friends, etc.—speak with your child to figure out if there are activities they’d like to be doing more of.

Breaking the social media habit will take time and there will be ups and downs, but once teens experience the improved mood and self-esteem that can result from decreased scrolling, a healthy balance will emerge.

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Last Updated: Mar 18, 2019