Social Media, Mental Health, and Teens

Does Social Media Cause Depression and Anxiety in Teenagers?

There seems to be a new headline every week claiming to answer this question, but whenever I look more deeply at the actual article, the answer isn’t as clearcut as it seems on the surface. In the spirit of my mission to examine what we know scientifically while also using instinct and common-sense in our parenting, I am figuring out what we know so far about social media, mental health, and teens, what to do about what we know, and even finding a silver lining.

I now ask every teenager in my office how many hours a day they are online, and what social media platforms they use. This is new to my clinical practice and not part of my training since Facebook barely existed when I was in graduate school.

This rapid change explains why our generation of parents feels pretty clueless, and thus anxious, about how social media is affecting – or will affect – our own children. I have had two personal reactions myself: one is to avoid it because my kids have been younger, hoping the parents ahead of me figure out the answers for me; the second is to plan on basically banning all use of social media because that feels easiest and safest.

The anxiety about this has clearly gotten to me as a mother. I would never advise parents of teens in my practice to not allow social media . . . and I would not ban myself from social media. So before we let anxiety take the reigns, what do we actually know?

What Science Says

The biggest challenge to the research in this area is that research is by nature a slow process, while changes in technology and the online world move faster than our Wifi speeds. I have also noticed a conflation of screen time and social media, which needs to be teased apart. Social media happens ON screens; screen time is more than social media time; interaction with social media brings up social and emotional factors apart from the use of screen time.

To start, there is no doubt that teens’ use of social media contributes to other risk factors that we do know increase the chances of anxiety and depression.

The National Institutes of Health has a study underway that will look at the effects of screen time — including social media — on more than 11,000 youth over a decade, which means we have to wait that long (and more) to know all of what they find.

In the meantime, they have released some preliminary findings that appear to carry warnings for the effects of too many hours of screen time on the brain, but these findings still raise more questions than they answer. (More than 7 hours a day (!) causes “premature thinning of the cortex,” but not sure how that actually translates to daily functioning.)

Just last week, I saw the NPR headline everywhere, A Rise in Depression among Teens and Young Adults Could Be Linked to Social Media Use. This article reports on a recently published study that has found that rates of anxiety and depression in teenagers have risen substantially, coinciding with the advent of more social media in teens’ lives.

As critics in the article point out, this correlation is intriguing, but by no means a definitive conclusion that social media has caused the increase in mental health symptoms. There could be a variety of factors accounting for this phenomenon, and the theory that we should blame social media is just that: a theory.

In fact, other studies have found that teenagers can benefit from using social media because of the peer connection and sense of belonging it fosters, actually decreasing risk for depression. The reach of online communities brings support to teens who would otherwise feel marginalized and different in smaller real-life communities.

Studies have also suggested that pre-existing anxiety or depression is the real risk that social media can then exacerbate; this is a very different scenario from social media causing mental health problems.

The bottom line from research to date is that we don’t know if social media causes mental health problems in teenagers. We simply need more rigorous research before drawing a scientific conclusion (again, NIH is working on this). So what do we do in the meantime, since an outright social media ban is probably not a realistic or effective answer?

“IRL” (“In Real Life” for those of us slow to learn all the acronyms)

The science doesn’t know yet, but what about our instincts, observations, and common sense?

To start, there is no doubt that teens’ use of social media contributes to other risk factors that we do know increase the chances of anxiety and depression.

I worked with a teenager for awhile who had chronic depression and anxiety. We developed and practiced strategies to manage and decrease his symptoms, in combination with medication treatment.

For months, I (therapeutically) harped on him about his sleep habits, which being online until the wee hours had hijacked. The barrier? He didn’t WANT to go to bed earlier, and it didn’t matter how much I preached about the benefits of sleep. Then there was a turning point event, and he finally changed his sleep routine. He came into my office a visibly calmer person, admitting what a difference it had made for him to put away his laptop and go to bed earlier.

SOCIAL MEDIA, MENTAL HEALTH, AND TEENS

SOCIAL MEDIA, MENTAL HEALTH, AND TEENS

I have said it as many times as I have opportunity: sleep is everything. We know this as parents of newborns and early-rising toddlers and preschoolers. But it’s undoubtedly critical for adolescents and mental health.

This is why every list of recommendations that exists for screen time includes: put away screens an hour before bed, and keep the cell phone in another room.  One reason for this is the stressful exchanges happening on social media at 2 a.m.

I can also see with my psychologist-trained eye the addictive effects of devices, and social media. The creators do this on purpose because it means we use their products and programs more. Those notification bings are like candy pellets and we are all Skinners’ rats. This is why turning off phones during certain times can be a significant step as we interrupt the addictive behavior loop (grown-ups included).

Finally, we have to acknowledge the pitfalls of how social media has changed social lives of teenagers.

I don’t need a research study to tell me how much more upset I would have been as a 15-year-old if I could have seen Instagram photos of my “friends” doing something together that I hadn’t been invited to. It was hard enough just guessing I was being excluded via cryptic phone calls on my 90s landline. And of course we are all more aware now of the serious harm caused by bullying, magnified exponentially by the reach and speed of cyberbullying. Every adult I know says how thankful they are social media and the internet didn’t exist when we were teenagers.

We also don’t need research to tell us about our specific children, because obviously the NIH scientists don’t KNOW our kids. We do. There is no greater knowledge than our own expertise as the parents of our children. They give us clues even in sullen, withdrawn teenage years. How much time are they spending with friends IN PERSON? Do they appear visibly upset or distracted after being on their phone? Do they seem calmer and more even-tempered after a stretch of time away from their phones?

Watch them, and learn. Then set limits. Yes, we may have to set limits for them and their growing brains so they can feel the benefits of less social media time, and then be motivated to set their own limits. But how? Here’s a start:

Quick Tips:

  • Let them sleep. MAKE them sleep if you have to . . . by enforcing limits on a “device curfew” at least an hour before bed, and not allowing devices in the bedroom. Get them an old-fashioned alarm clock if needed (this is one excuse I hear from teens about why they need their phones in their rooms).

  • Create screen-free times throughout the week that all family members follow (eg, dinner — no phones at the table!). This can be easier than limiting screen time when teens are also on screens for school and we don’t have the time to hover next to them and their screens to monitor every minute. That’s not good for anyone! (Although I hear there are ways to monitor via apps etc, but I haven’t gotten there yet!)

  • Monitor and encourage time spent IN PERSON with friends. There is just no substitute for learning how to navigate relationships in real life.

  • Watch for behavior or mood changes that seem to happen right after being on their cell phones to look out for possible social stress associated with using social media. If you catch these signs earlier on, and can talk openly about their experiences on social media, as well as the effects on mood, it’s easier to slow down that speeding train before a complete trainwreck.

  • If your efforts to limit social media use are futile and you are concerned, consult a mental health professional with experience in working with teens and families. Better to go this extra mile if your instinct tells you your family needs the support. Sometimes, even a couple sessions of developing a plan with a neutral third party can make a huge difference.

Could this be an opportunity?

The constant stream of headlines about the dangers of social media adds stress to our baseline anxiety about parenting adolescents. No matter the generation, era, or state of technology, adolescence is a phase of huge growth and change that can be emotionally tumultuous for kids and parents alike. It also happens to be a risky time for mental health problems to show up, because of the stress of this time of life, genetic predispositions kicking in, or the combination.

The new norm of social media may be yet another mountain to climb in the great mountain range of challenges in parenting teens. But maybe a little anxiety about this new challenge can be used for good, motivating us to be more attuned to looking out for signs of mental health concerns, whether or not social media is causing them.

Resources

It’s Complicated: Teens, Social Media, and Mental Health, Psychology Today

Social Media and Teens: How Does Social Media Affect Teenagers’ Mental Health? Katie Hurley, LCSW, Psycom