November 29, 2022

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Mental Health Effects and Healthy Use

8 min read

Penélope Cruz recently announced on CBS that her children aren’t allowed to use social media until they’re 16.

“I feel really bad for the ones that are teenagers now,” she said. “It’s almost like the world [is] doing some kind of experiment on them: ‘Oh, let’s see what happens if you expose a 12-year-old to that much technology.’”

Cruz may have a point.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 90 percent of U.S. teens ages 13–17 use or have used social media.

They’re also using it more frequently.

According to 2020 data from Statista, 63 percent of U.S. parents reported that their teens used more social media than they did before the pandemic.

This rise of social media use in young people coincides with a rise in mental health concerns. Many health experts are calling it a second pandemic.

For instance, according to Mental Health America (MHA), the number of youth who experienced a major depressive episode in 2021 increased by 206,000 from the previous year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide attempts among U.S. adolescents increased by 31 percent from 2019 to 2020, and emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts in 2021 were 51 percent higher among girls ages 12–17 than during the same period in 2019.

But what does it all have to do with social media?

Here’s what the experts have to say about how social media is affecting young people’s mental health and well-being.

“Social media use increased during the pandemic for many young people,” explains Jaclyn Halpern, PsyD, director of the SOAR program at Washington Behavioral Medicine Associates. “In many cases, it became the primary source of social connection for tweens and teens who were otherwise unable to socialize with their friends.”

In this sense, social media benefitted young people by connecting them to their real-life social groups in a time of isolation.

Isolation can take a toll on mental, emotional, and physical health.

According to a 2017 review, researchers found a significant association between social isolation and loneliness, noting a negative correlation with cardiovascular and mental health outcomes.

During the pandemic, social media became the only way to stay in touch with friends and maintain a social circle for many young people.

In this sense, it acted as a mental and emotional lifeline.

“There are absolutely benefits to social media use,” says Halpern. “It can reduce feelings of social isolation and allow tweens and teens to feel connected to their peers.”

Halpern notes that social media can have multiple benefits for young people “all of which can be empowering, entertaining, and social.”

These include:

  • connecting to others with similar interests
  • learning about new topics and hobbies
  • building identity
  • encouraging social and political engagement
  • learning about others

Ironically, social media use may be helping and hurting at the same time.

“While [it] helped to prevent full isolation for many young people, increased social media may also have negatively impacted their mental and physical health,” Halpern says.

Even before the pandemic, evidence suggested that social media may have negative effects on mental health.

For instance, a 2015 study found that U.K. children who used social networking sites for 3 hours or more on a school day were twice as likely to report high or very high scores for mental ill-health.

Studies done during the pandemic tell a more nuanced story.

A 2020 study analyzing 86,581,237 English-language Twitter posts found that there was a significant increase in social media use as stay-at-home mandates went into effect. The findings suggested that social media was being used as a coping mechanism to combat feelings of isolation related to long-term physical distancing.

But was it working?

While people may reach for their phones to cope with negative feelings in the short term, the study noted that social media use may increase negative feelings in the long term.

It turns out that it’s not just social media but the way it’s used and how much.

A 2022 cross-national online survey of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway found that using social media for entertainment or to decrease loneliness during the pandemic was associated with poorer mental health. On the other hand, using social media for personal contact and maintaining relationships was associated with better mental health.

Still, the study found that increased daily time on social media was associated with poorer mental health overall.

These findings suggest that many people, including youth, turn to social media in difficult times. Unfortunately, depending on how it’s used and how often, social media may actually make matters worse.

“Social media also comes with lots of risks,” says Halpern

These include:

Social media can also lead to feelings of pressure to present a perfect version of yourself.

“Tweens and teens may feel the need to compete with peers and to craft an identity that allows them to be seen as popular,” Halpern says. “To do this, they may take tons of pictures before finding the perfect one, hyper-focus on how they look and dress, and worry about presenting themselves in a certain way.”

An ExpressVPN survey of 1,500 Americans found that 86 percent of those ages 16 to 24 reported that social media directly negatively impacts their happiness.

Additional results included the following:

  • 85 percent reported negative effects on self-esteem
  • 85 percent reported negative effects on self-image
  • 83 percent reported an increase in anxiety
  • 81 percent reported an increase in loneliness
  • 79 percent reported an increase in depression

After two years of relative isolation, social media use has reached peak levels in young people.

For most tweens and teens, social media has become a necessary part of life. Many find it difficult to maintain friendships and communicate with peers without it.

While quitting social media for good might be unrealistic for some, it’s possible to encourage young people to have a healthy, balanced relationship with their phones.

“The reality is that caregivers need to help with this,” says Halpern. “Through conversation, caregivers can help their kids understand both the potential benefits and risks of social media use.”

It’s also important to discuss the illusion of social media with children.

“Much of what’s posted on social media is curated and not an accurate representation of reality,” Halpern says. “This [knowledge] can reduce fear of missing out and the pressure to create a perfect image.”

Finally, it’s vital for young people to find a balance between the online world and the real world, and parents can lead by example.

Of course, this may mean adjusting some of the habits formed during the pandemic.

“Help young people make time for exercise and fresh air,” Halpern suggests. “You can also model appropriate screen time and social media use.”

Encourage kids and teens to engage in activities with family and friends in the real world. They can go to the movies, a local park, a public pool, or even make video calls to friends and family who are far away.

Want some specific ideas to manage your family’s social media use? It may take some effort, but it’s possible.

Halpern explains that caregivers “can help their kids create a balanced lifestyle by monitoring social-media use and setting realistic limits.”

Bookend your days with social-free time

Instead of waking up and going to sleep with endless scrolling, set a time period in the morning and evening that’s phone-free.

The first hour of waking can set the tone for the rest of the day. The last hour before sleep is the perfect time to wind down with a bedtime routine.

Create a phone-free zone

Designate a specific place or two in the home to be 100 percent phone-free.

This can be the dinner table to encourage mealtime conversation or the bedroom to support healthy bedtime habits. It can even be the bathroom if you want to prevent devices from getting dropped in the toilet!

Make it a game

Rather than penalizing kids for too much social media use, you can incentivize them to use less.

With tracking apps like Social Fever and StayFree, you can see just how much time you and your family spend on social media. You can offer rewards to the family member who uses theirs the least, like getting to choose the next restaurant for takeout or what you’ll do for the weekend family outing.

This empowers youth to get involved in the management of their social media use and gives them a positive alternative, like their favorite eats or some quality family time.

Take a communal break

Ever heard of a social media detox? You and your family can try one together.

You simply set an amount of time you’ll be taking a break from social and stick to it, kids included. It could be just one day to start.

As you and your family find yourselves reaching for your phones, you can support each other in choosing other connection-based activities instead.

Break out the board games, take a walk around the neighborhood, or cook a meal together.

If everyone needs alone time, you can take a reading break, work on an art project, do a crossword puzzle, or find a nice place to sit and quietly reflect.

Have a conversation

Most young people aren’t oblivious to the fact that social media impacts them.

According to a 2022 Healthline survey of 1,042 U.S. citizens, 29 percent of respondents of all ages felt they needed to take a social media break of a few days to feel a benefit to their mental health. Interestingly, this number jumped to 46 percent among 15- to 24-year-olds.

These results indicate that young people, especially teens and young adults, have the self-awareness to recognize the effects of social media on their well-being.

By starting a simple conversation with your kids around social media, you may find they’re already thinking about it. That means you can step in to provide encouragement, support, and a listening ear.

While social media may offer benefits during times of isolation, it has its share of downsides too.

Still, it’s possible to enjoy the positive side of social media with honest self-reflection and responsible management.

Adults and youth can make the most of their social media time by focusing on connection, both online and IRL.


Meg is a freelance journalist and features writer who covers culture, entertainment, lifestyle, and health. Her writing has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Shondaland, Healthline, HelloGiggles, Reader’s Digest, Apartment Therapy, and more. Find her on Twitter at @wordsbyMeg or on her website at megwalters.co.uk.

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