How Social Media Impacts Children’s Mental Health

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Social media has become a part of everyday life. We check it on the train when we’re waiting for an appointment and if we get a spare minute at work or school. Some people even check their social media accounts before getting out of bed in the morning. However, for teenagers and young adults, the prevalence of social media is ingrained into the fabric of their everyday lives. They may not remember a time without social media and will therefore not be aware of the effect that it could be having on their mental health.

Social Media and Well-being

Research from the University of Essex and UCL found that the more time children aged 10 spent on social media, the more reduced their well-being was later in adolescence, from ages 10 to 15.[1] The same study also found that girls were more heavily affected by social media than boys, which researchers suspect is due to young girls being more sensitive to social comparison.

Another study from America revealed that certain regions of teenagers’ brains were activated when they received a like on social media, and the triggering of this reward centre caused them to want to use it more.[2] When teens saw large numbers of likes on their posts, the area of the brain that responded was the same region that responds when people see pictures of people they love or when they win money.

Mental Health

Young adults’ usage of social media has a significant impact on their mental health. As their brains are still developing, exposure to so much content on social media can be harmful and can damage their future well-being. In addition to the risks to their mental health, teens using social media are also at risk of cyberbullying and grooming.

Teenagers can experience a range of mental health problems due to social media. Here is an overview of some of the common issues they may face.

Depression

Although social media has not yet been proven to cause depression, it is shown to intensify certain symptoms, such as social isolation and loneliness.[3] Another study discovered that using multiple social media sites is indicative of a higher risk of depression, with people who used more than seven sites having three times the risk.[4]

Teenagers and young adults have a wide range of social media platforms to choose from. They may have accounts on sites such as:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • TikTok
  • Snapchat
  • YouTube
  • Pinterest
  • Reddit

Extensive use of these sites can damage young adults’ self-esteem. Social media shows young people how other people appear to live their lives, and they may compare themselves to others constantly. This can cause feelings of unworthiness and insecurity, leading to a lack of confidence and consistent self-doubt.

Anxiety

Many young adults and teenagers can feel huge amounts of anxiety due to social media. They may feel pressured to continually post perfect photos and write idealised posts to go alongside them. The unspoken rules of social media can be challenging to keep up with, and teenagers can experience high levels of anxiety as a result.

Young people are constantly bombarded with what their friends, peers, and idols are doing, which can make them feel left out. And if their posts aren’t getting enough likes and comments compared to their friends, young people can feel inadequate and anxious and begin to think they are not good enough.

For young adults already struggling with anxiety, extensive social media use can exacerbate the problem. Teens can feel anxious about what they post, how often they post it, and how many likes and comments they get. Many girls can feel even more anxious online, as they are more prone to worrying about their image and can be especially impacted by cyberbullying and slut-shaming.

Sleep

Social media has an addictive quality, and teenagers can get caught up in posting, talking with their friends, and losing out on sleep. Although this is not a mental health condition, social media can heavily impact sleeping patterns and sleep quality, which can then affect mental health.

A lack of sleep can impact many areas of a young adult’s life. Their grades may drop, they may be tired and moody throughout the day and struggle with paying attention. Research has also found that increased screen time is linked to the development of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) related symptoms, including issues with sleeping, a poor attention span, and emotional regulation.[5]

Teenagers’ brains are still developing and require between eight to ten hours of sleep per night. Extensive use of social media can impact both the amount of sleep and the quality of sleep that teenagers get and therefore worsen symptoms of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.

How to Help

Social media can be used positively, and there are several ways to help and mitigate the potential damage that social media may do to teens and young adults, such as:

  • Limiting social media use – for younger teens especially, limiting social media use can protect their mental health. Although they may initially resist, these limits will benefit them long-term.
  • Following social media guidelines – many social media platforms have a minimum age of 13 to create accounts on their platform. If your child wants to set up a social media account before this age, explain why these rules are in place.
  • Talking about social media – start a discussion about social media with your child. Gauge their feelings about it – do they enjoy using it, or does it make them anxious and worried? Work on educating your teen about social media, and ensure they understand that what they post or say can have consequences in real life.
  • Be a role model – set an example for your child by putting your phone away at mealtimes, limiting your time on social media, and having set times where you don’t touch technology. Your child will pick up on your behaviours and develop a healthier relationship with social media.
  • Help your child curate their feed – talk to your child about who they are following and why. Help them follow people who are good role models, and encourage them to unfollow accounts that make them feel bad.

Conclusion

Social media can have a massive impact on the mental health of teenagers and young adults. It can engender feelings of depression and anxiety as young people constantly compare themselves to others, and it can damage their performance in other life areas. Many studies have proven that overuse of social media can damage teenage mental health and parents and caregivers must take steps to safeguard young people.

Educating yourself and your child about social media can help them reduce their screen time and keep them safe online.

Sources:

[1] Booker CL, Kelly YJ, Sacker A. Gender differences in the associations between age trends of social media interaction and well-being among 10-15 year olds in the UK. BMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):321. doi:10.1186/s12889-018-5220-4

[2] Booker CL, Kelly YJ, Sacker A. Gender differences in the associations between age trends of social media interaction and well-being among 10-15 year olds in the UK. BMC Public Health. 2018;18(1):321. doi:10.1186/s12889-018-5220-4

[3] Vidal C, Lhaksampa T, Miller L, Platt R. Social media use and depression in adolescents: a scoping review. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2020;32(3):235-253. doi:10.1080/09540261.2020.1720623

[4] Zagorski N. Using many social media platforms linked with depression, anxiety risk. PN. 2017;52(2):1-1. doi:10.1176/appi.pn.2017.1b16

[5] Ra CK, Cho J, Stone MD, et al. Association of digital media use with subsequent symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder among adolescents. JAMA. 2018;320(3):255. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.8931

 


 

Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director of The Wave Clinic. Fiona is a UK Registered Adolescent and Family Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor (Licence number #361609 NCP/ICP), further trained in the specialty of Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorder Treatment. Fiona is trained in FBT (Family Based Therapy), CBTE for eating disorders, FREED (King’s College, London), EMDR for eating disorders (EMDRIA) and has a Post-Graduate Diploma in Neuroscience and Trauma from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Fiona works with international families and family offices from the UK, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore and Malaysia. Fiona can be contacted by email on [email protected].

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