My tiny hometown of Glasgow, Kentucky, was recently featured in the New York Times. Sadly, the story wasn’t about our green landscapes, bourbon, or our horses. Instead, Matt Richter reported on the growing impact of mental health troubles in adolescence.
“Teen pregnancy and alcohol, cigarette, and drug use have fallen while anxiety, depression, suicide, and self-harm have soared. … In December, the U.S. surgeon general, in a rare public advisory, warned of a ‘devastating’ mental health crisis among American teens,” Richter wrote.
Are teens spending more time online now than just a few years ago? Yes, and the pandemic may be to blame.
In the last few years, COVID-19 has hugely impacted individuals around the world. Remote learning, working, and reliance on technology became the norm and fundamentally changed how we interact with other human beings.
Teens, especially, felt the instability of constantly changing guidelines, rules, and measures driven by the global pandemic.
Isolation became something that everyone struggled with as lockdowns and social distancing required teens to remove themselves from gatherings of their peers. Consequently, adults and teens alike hopped onto social media to at least virtually connect when a physical connection wasn’t possible. Even now, after most lockdowns are past us, social media (and screen media usage) continues to rise at an unprecedented rate. Especially among teens.
Is social media a force for good, or is it evil by design?
So is social media dangerous? Some people point to the benefits of social media, saying that it provides teens with a platform for friendships, expression, and information. That being said, also consider the studies that continue to emerge about the negative effects of social media on social-emotional health.
We hear plenty of stories about online bullying, and parents around the world are concerned about social media’s scope and reach. A few years ago, several former employees of Instagram and Facebook joined together to warn teens and the general public about how social media apps are purposefully designed to invoke a gambler’s high. Random likes, dings from messages, and even the pull-down loading feature act like slot machine levers, triggering pleasure signals in our brains. They take advantage of how much we love unpredictability with intermittent reinforcements. Just like a casino, the goal of social media is to keep you on their platform for as long as possible. Hence, the endless scroll.
How does social media effect teen mental health?
Social media can challenge a teen’s mental health because it’s addictive by design. The endless scroll dissuades users from looking up and pausing, instead enticing them to stay on longer and keep coming back for more.
“Kids literally can’t be away from their devices,” says Michel Mennesson, M.D., a psychiatrist at Newport Academy. “Social media has become so absorbing and entertaining that kids are constantly checking social media sites. They always have their devices turned on: when they’re doing homework, hanging out with their friends, and even while they’re in bed.”
High usage of social media may be bad news for our kids because long-term studies and experts implicate social media for a variety of ills, including:
- Chronic sleep deprivation.
- Reduced cognitive control.
- Lowered academic performance.
- Impaired socioemotional functioning.
- An increase in anxiety and depression.
- Low self-image.
- Difficulty navigating interpersonal relationships.
- The promotion of self-harm and suicidality among youth.
My teen already spends a lot of time on social media. Are they doomed?
No, they’re not doomed. You can take action to help.
Back to Richter’s NYT article reported from my hometown. Dr. Dennison, a well-known pediatrician, gives Richter a prime example of the psychological distress many physicians see regularly in their teen patients. She describes a 15-year-old girl coming to her office because she was cutting her arms and feeling depressed. Dennison encouraged the girl to get therapy, but the girl refused. So Dr. Dennison prescribed something else. She told her patient, “You need to get off the phone and the computer. When it’s pretty outside, put on a jacket, and go for a walk. Talk to a friend in person.”
And that seems like good advice because, according to the National Library of Medicine, adolescents report that their happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem are proportional to the time they spend on social media.
The prescription for today’s teens is simple: Interact with the real world to improve and protect your mental health.
If that’s true, then one way to help our teens is to put them on a digital detox. Encourage them to spend more time doing non-screen activities like meeting up with friends, exercising, reading a book, attending religious services, working a paid job, or volunteering, for example. Multiple studies indicate that time spent offline can benefit your teen’s mental health.
How do I get my teen to decrease their presence on social media?
Social media seems like it’s here to stay and it will continue to serve as both a helpful tool and a potentially harmful distraction. How do we teach our kids about the incredible tools the digital age has to offer while ensuring they won’t be controlled by them? It all starts with an open conversation between you and your teen. Ask questions like:
- How do you use social media?
- How do you feel after spending time online?
- How does social media add value to your life?
- Do you feel like your time online affects other people in your life, like your friends and your family?
- Is there a difference between your online friends and your real-life friends?
- Are you the same online as you are in person?
- How do you decide what to share online?
- Do you worry about online safety?
Keep the conversation going by revisiting these questions periodically, and remember to be open to what your teen has to say. If you ask a question, then wait for the answer, even if it disappoints or scares you. Reacting without judgment is the most important part here.
Another thing you can do is model healthy behaviors for your teen. Consider implementing “screen-free” periods of the day, like at dinner and before bed. Try not to check your phone when you talk face-to-face with people. Maintain good, healthy relationships with your own real-life friends and find ways to support your teen in spending time with theirs.
Finally, if social media has become an addiction that your interventions can’t solve, consider seeking additional support for your teen’s underlying struggles with their mental health.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis Text Line: Text “START” to 741741 in USA
- National Eating Disorder Association: Call 1-800-931-2237
- Trevor Lifeline (For LGBTQ Youth): Call 866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678
Newport Academy is a network of teen mental health and substance abuse treatment centers providing teens and their families a safe, accepting, and nurturing environment and the highest-quality care for trauma, mental health issues, eating disorders, and substance abuse.