“Do it for the ‘gram,’” has become a common phrase among children and teenagers alike, signifying doing an act or posing in a certain manner specifically to later post a photo on Instagram and receive numerous likes. This is just one example of social media potentially dictating adolescents’ lives. Though harmless in theory, social media has the ability to affect mental health, as children between the ages of 8-12 spend about 6 hours a day on social media and those between the ages of 13-17 spend about 9 hours a day on social media. That’s more than one-third of their entire day. So just how does this environmental exposure affect adolescents’ mental health?
Group connectivity – Common social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were created to bring people together. Whether it’s catching up with an old friend who moved far away or forming a new friendship with someone who posts about similar interests, individuals can feel connected and less lonely when using these apps. For example, one systematic narrative review in 2014 found that social networking can increase self-esteem and a feeling of belongingness. This could be especially important for a child who may not have many friends at school, as he/she can still have important social interactions with peers.
Creative stimulus – Scroll through the Explore tab on Instagram and you’ll see the work of countless painters, sculptors, fashion stylists, makeup artists, tattoo artists, singers, songwriters, poets, and writers. Social media is a platform that can reach many individuals and allows every amateur artist to display his/her work. By providing a creative outlet for adolescents, social media can nurture growing artistic passions. Art has been shown to benefit self-discovery, self-expression, and social identity—which could all improve the mental health of adolescents.
Social maladjustment – With adolescents spending 6-9 hours on social media, there is not much time left to socialize offline. Children who grow up forming friendships and engaging in discussion primarily online may struggle to do the same at school when they cannot have their phones out. This can lead to loneliness or mental strife when confronted with these situations. The majority of the day is still spent offline, and these adolescents’ mental health may suffer from the difficulties of life unplugged.
Cyberbullying – On multiple social media websites, individuals can post as anonymous users, which allows them to avoid consequences for their actions. This anonymity has led to online bullying, which can include posting mean comments that most individuals would never consider saying to another person’s face. Any individual, regardless of age, is at risk for cyberbullying simply by having an online presence. One study in 2010 found that youth who experienced cyberbullying, either as an offender or victim, had more suicidal thoughts and were more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
Examples of cyberbullying:
Body issues: In May 2017, the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK found that Instagram was the social media outlet that had the most negative impact on young people’s mental health. Why? The app consists entirely of images and videos with filters built-in to alter them to the user’s liking. According to the author of the report, Matt Kreacher, Instagram causes adolescents to, “compare themselves against unrealistic, largely curated, filtered and Photoshopped versions of reality.” Scrolling through thousands of pictures of men and women who look perfect could make any individual feel self-conscious about their bodies, let alone young impressionable children and teenagers. It is easy to forget that Instagram models or celebrities often pose for hundreds of pictures with their hair and makeup professionally done and then retouch the photos and select one to post online. The user only sees the perfect finished product.
Facebook depression: This term has recently been coined to describe the symptoms of depression that frequent users of social media experience. Multiple studies have shown a strong association between social media use and depression. Other studies have even shown that social media use can be associated with anxiety as well. Though not limited to Facebook, these symptoms may be due to the fear of missing out (FoMO) that users experience while looking at an exciting or glamorous post from someone else while they are sitting home alone. Alternatively, individuals may compare their lives to the unrealistically flattering depiction of others’ and believe that others are leading more fulfilling and happier lives. Lastly, a study in Amsterdam found that negative feedback on an individual’s profile (ranging from mean comments to a lack of an enthusiastic response) decreased users’ self-esteem and wellbeing.
As the number of social media accounts and FoMO increases, anxiety and depression symptoms increase.
What Parents Can Do
Limit time: One easily implemented change that parents can undertake is limiting the time that their children can spend on social media. As discussed in this blog, social media can have a positive impact on one’s mental health, so completely eliminating their use in the household is not necessary. However, by limiting the time allowed on these apps, parents can try to prevent the negative effects that occur from consistent and constant use. This way, children and adolescents will not rely solely on social media for establishing relationships and self-esteem.
Discuss motivations and expectations for social media: By sitting down and having a talk with their kids about social media, parents can influence how children approach these apps in the first place. If a ten-year-old girl discovers Instagram for the first time on her own, she might assume that is how everyone is supposed to look and grow up feeling self-conscious about her body. If a high school freshman joins Facebook and see posts about parties that his classmates seem to attend every weekend, he may feel isolated from his peers and struggle with self-esteem. If an authority figures discusses how social media often portrays the “highlight reel” of individual’s life, then young users may be able to appreciate posts for entertainment rather than comparison. Adolescents’ mental health is most likely to be positively impacted by social media if it is used as a supplement for relationship development and not as an aspirational guide.
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May 2018. This post was written by Eileen Robinson, a medical student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, and edited by Emily Szwiec. The Region 5 PEHSU is part of a national network of experts in children’s and reproductive environmental health who provide medical consultation for health professionals, parents, caregivers, and patients on health risks due to natural or human-made environmental hazards. Call our hotline at (866) 967-7337 for questions about environmental exposures.