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Social Media’s Impact on Social-Emotional Health

For Aija Mayrock, the bullying started when she was in third grade and continued for years, even after she moved. The harassment came to a head when she was a freshman and a girl from her former hometown mockingly dressed up as her for Halloween and posted a picture on Facebook. Within minutes, Mayrock received hundreds, then thousands, of spiteful messages. “I felt like the most hated person on the planet,” she says.

Now 23, Mayrock speaks to students, parents, and teachers around the country about responsible social media use—and has turned her high school cyberbullying experience into a bestseller, The Survival Guide to Bullying.

Troubling stories about online bullying have become commonplace. But it’s not just that social media can turn nasty. It’s that constant connectedness makes it hard for teenagers to escape.

The 24/7 nature of social media can have negative mental health effects, especially for teens who are already struggling.

So what exactly is the problem? According to a recent Common Sense Media study that interviewed teens about social media use, 70 percent of teens use social media more than once a day (compared to 34 percent in 2012). Twenty-two percent use it several times in one hour and another 16 percent use it almost constantly.

“Kids are constantly checking their social media page to see how many ‘likes’ they have,” says Michel Mennesson, M.D., psychiatrist at Newport Academy. “They literally can’t be away from their devices—they have it on when they’re doing homework, hanging out with their friends, even in bed. It becomes so absorbing and entertaining that they start to go online to relieve stress.”

Yet, for many kids, social media actually increases stress levels. According to the Common Sense Media study, teens who score lowest on measures of social health and emotional well-being are more likely to report that social media has negative effects on their psyche.

To determine well-being, the researchers asked kids how much certain statements applied to them, such as, “I’m happy with my life,” “There are lots of things I can do well,” “I’m lonely,” and “I often feel sad or depressed.” Then researchers compiled teens’ answers to determine their general social and emotional health.

When Common Sense Media asked specific questions about social media, most kids said it had no effect on their feelings of popularity, anxiety, depression, or confidence. But when social-emotional health was factored in, dramatic differences became apparent.

For example, 70 percent of teens with low social-emotional health say they feel left out or excluded when they see pictures of their friends together on social media, compared to only 29 percent of kids who scored high on the health and wellness scale. And, 43 percent of teens with low social-emotional health have deleted social media posts because they got too few likes, compared to 13 percent of healthy kids.

The bottom line is that when it comes to social media, parents might want to keep a particular eye on kids who feel bullied or harassed or who may not feel emotionally and socially grounded.

That doesn’t necessarily mean banning social media. “For most kids, removing social media isn’t the silver-bullet solution parents think it is,” says Michael Robb, Senior Director of Research at Common Sense Media.

Like it or not, social media is part of the teen ecosystem.

Instead, parents of vulnerable teens should continue to take sensible steps like keeping phones out of bedrooms overnight and modeling their own healthy relationship with screens and social media. Just as important, parents should consider seeking out additional support for the teen’s underlying social and emotional struggles.

Know, too, that even for struggling teens, social media can sometimes be helpful—39 percent said it made them feel less lonely, while only 13 percent said it made them feel more lonely.

Social media isn’t inherently good or bad—it’s all in how it’s used.

Watch how your kids behave after they’ve been connected to social media—and talk about it. Do they seem a little more irritable after scanning Instagram for 20 minutes? Do they seem upbeat about a Snapchat conversation? Call their attention to what you see in their mood and behavior, and then you can determine together whether they need to make a change in their social media activities.

Amy Paturel, MS

Amy Paturel, M.S., M.P.H., is a freelance writer based in southern California. Follow her on Twitter @amypaturel.