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  • Writer's pictureChristine Willing, M.Ed., NCSP,

Is Social Media Bad for Your Teen’s Mental Health?

Highlights from this blog

· Social media can help teens stay connected and be a positive outlet for self-expression.

· However, teens can become insecure when they compare themselves to others online.

· Cyberbullying, loss of sleep, and rejection caused by social media can all play a role in teenage depression and anxiety.

If your teen spends a lot of time on social media (and whose doesn’t?), you’re probably wondering how it affects their mental health. While you’ve likely heard a lot about cyberbullying and depression, social media can have a wide range of effects on teens—and not all of them are bad.

So in today’s post, I want to answer the question a lot of parents ask me: is social media bad for my teen’s mental health?

But before we get started, I have quick announcement. This is only part one of a two-part series. Make sure to check back next week when I’ll be covering how to help your teenager set social media boundaries and curate a feed that will leave them feeling positive and empowered.

The Positive Side of Social Media

Let’s start off with the good stuff. During pandemic lockdowns, social media was a lifeline for teens who couldn’t socialize in person. Even now, platforms like Instagram and TikTok can give teens a sense of connection. In fact, a Pew Research poll found that 81% of teens feel more connected to their friends thanks to social media.

Social media also encourages meaningful self-expression. It gives teens a way to share their likes, dislikes, and even their creative sides. This is a critical part of their identity and self-worth. Likes and positive interactions can lead to feelings of validation and approval from their peers.

In addition to sharing their favorite music or showing off their newest outfit, teens can get involved in political conversations and civic activity. Even though most teens can't vote, social media gives them a voice and a healthy sense that they can have an impact on the world.

As you can see, social media has at least a few mental health benefits. But even the healthiest social media diet isn’t free from risks.

The Problem with Living Life Through a Filter

If you’ve seen The Tinder Swindler or Inventing Anna, you know how easy it can be to create the “perfect” persona online. And it’s not just scammers who are enhancing their lives through filters and careful editing—a lot of us do it.

Unfortunately, this makes it seem like everyone else is leading a perfect life. And that means teens are measuring themselves against a skewed picture of reality, causing them to feel insecure about their status, their lives, and even their bodies.

In fact, one study found that social media use is associated with a higher risk of developing body image issues and eating disorders in teens.

Rejection is Real…and It Stings

For many teens, their online identity is directly tied to their self-worth. After spending so

much energy crafting their profiles and accounts, teens want validation. And when they don't get it, it can hurt.

A 2020 experiment conducted at the University of Texas at Austin confirmed what many of us already knew—not getting enough likes can lead to feelings of rejection and ultimately depression and anxiety.

Social Skills Could Be Suffering

When teens engage on social media, they spend less time with each other in real life.

That means they are not learning how to read social cues, body language, and other forms of non-verbal communication.

Plus, social media and texting provides young people with plenty of time to craft the perfect response. For some teens, that can lead to anxiety around social situations when their phone isn’t there to provide a buffer.

Cyberbullying Is a Real Threat

From a mental health perspective, cyberbullying is one of the greatest risks of social media. When a teen becomes the victim of a cyberbully, the psychological effects can be devastating. Because online abuse can happen anytime and anywhere, victims often find themselves in a constant state of anxiety, stress, and helplessness. I see it in my practice all the time, and if this is happening to your child, I recommend finding a professional for them to talk to immediately.

Fear of Missing Out Leads to Missed Sleep

If you’ve ever caught your teen looking at their phone in the middle of the night, you already know what I’m about to tell you. Heavy social media use is likely causing teens to go to bed later. Poor sleep habits can lead to all kinds of mental health problems. For many teens, the fear of missing out is competing with their need for sleep, and it’s impacting their ability to concentrate, pay attention, and make good decisions.

Depression and Anxiety

You probably hear a lot about this topic on the news. While there is still a lot of research to be done, there is strong evidence of a connection between depression, anxiety, and social media use. I’ve listed several of the reasons for this above including reduced self-esteem and erratic sleep habits. But some other factors may include reduced physical activity and increased feelings of social isolation.

The Verdict

While listing out the pros and cons of social media, I tried to be fair and open minded. But I wouldn't be writing about this topic if I didn't see so many of my clients suffering from negative social media experiences.

The research is clear—social media has the capacity to harm teen’s mental well-being. But that doesn’t mean we should take away their phones and move off the grid! It means we need to find better ways to help our children create and curate a fulfilling and meaningful life online.

And I’ll be exploring just how to do that next week! So come back then to learn how you can help teens set boundaries, curate their feed, and model good social media behaviors yourself.

In the meantime, make sure to sign up for our newsletter if you haven't already and let us know what topics you'd like us to cover in the comments below.

And if you're looking for therapy or teletherapy for your teen, contact us now to set up an appointment.

Christine Willing, M.Ed., NCSP, is the CEO & founder of Think Happy Live Healthy, a psychological therapy and wellness company in northern Virginia. As a Licensed School Psychologist, she helps kids and families navigate the stress of school with resiliency and positivity. When she’s not seeing patients, Christine enjoys life at the beach, listening to podcasts, and walking her adorable dog, Latte. Follow her on Instagram at thinkhappylivehealthy.

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