Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of depression and anxiety, as well as feelings of body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. That's directly from the United States Surgeon General, reporting on social media and youth mental health.
While there are benefits to social media use, it is crucial not to overlook the worrisome dark side of social media use.
Social Media and Teens: By the Numbers
The report, Social Media and Youth Mental Health, sheds light on social media use among teens and its impact on their psychological welfare. About 95% of young people ages 13 to 17 are on social media. More than a third of them rank their use as “almost constantly.”
Although most social media platforms have a minimum age of 13 for access and use, few enforce that requirement — almost 40% of kids between eight and 12 years old use social media regularly. What is most concerning about this is there haven't been any substantive studies on the safety of social media and its impact on young people, especially regarding mental health.
Benefits of Social Media
One of the most commonly cited benefits of social media is that it provides the opportunity for positive social connections and gives a sense of community with others who have similar interests, abilities, and identities. Users are free to express themselves and explore their creativity, gaining exposure to ideas and issues they may never encounter otherwise. It connects people worldwide, allowing for friendships to be forged and cultures to be shared.
Social media can be a haven for those who feel like social outcasts, introverts, or are socially awkward. After repeated failures at in-person interactions, they can feel overwhelmed and alone. Social media can help ease that isolation. When life gives you lemons, fire up Facebook.
The exposure to various cultures and ideologies encourages a broader acceptance of diversity on all levels. The potential exists to make the world a better, more accepting place. Several studies have shown that social media may be a tool for supporting individuals who feel marginalized in society, including gender, racial, sexual, and ethnic minorities, or those groups commonly at risk. Many share and learn self-care ideas and the importance of self-love through the interactions they have online on these platforms.
Looking at social media from this standpoint, it’s hard to imagine that anything could go wrong, but it does. It can go very wrong.
The Dark Side of Social Media
Not all social media experiences are positive and helpful. Researchers have repeatedly found it is possible to have too much of a “good” thing. One study looked at the social media use of young people aged 12 to 15 and the impact it had on their mental health. Those who spent more than three hours a day on social media were twice as likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other poor mental health outcomes. In 2021, most eighth and 10th graders averaged three and a half hours on social media daily.
Study after study has shown an increase in depression and anxiety with regular use of social media, including grade school, high school, and college-aged young people. What is most telling is that a reduction in social media use typically correlates with a lowered incidence and intensity of depression and anxiety.
A 2020 study showed that social media use has the potential to normalize hatred by dehumanization. That may sound extreme, but the perceived anonymity of some users encourages them to do and say things to others online that they would likely never do face-to-face. Another study found that among 14-year-old social media users, the more frequent the use, the more they experienced:
- Exposure to explicit content: 71%
- Pressure to act a particular way: 59%
- Bullying or harassment by others: 54%
- Lowered self-esteem: 54%
- Depression or anxiety: 53%
The risk of exposure to harmful or inappropriate content is another factor that needs consideration. The human brain is not fully developed and mature until the person is in their mid to late 20s. Exposing children to this type of harmful content shapes their neurological development, affecting not only their psychology but also their logic, decision-making, and ability to reason.
Setting Boundaries for Social Media Use
Parents are the gatekeepers of their children's development and growth. It is the parent's place to set firm boundaries that keep their children physically and mentally safe. Sometimes, that means making unpopular decisions, such as limiting social media use. Sometimes, it means getting creative and helping children make healthier choices.
A knee-jerk reaction may be to remove social media or substantially limit their children's access to it.
But a better option for parents is to take a more sensitive approach. Replace time spent on social media with other activities.
In other words, increasing family time, investing in a fun class the child wants to take, or introducing other activities like reading or art. This strategy not only teaches the child the importance of moderation but also expands their interests.
Safe internet and social media use should be fundamental in the home. Parents should have access to their children's accounts and be able to see any interactions and private messages. At the same time, parents must establish trust and not abuse that right to access.
When dealing with emotional fallout from negative social media experiences, parents must address them head-on with compassion and concern. One of the best ways to combat depression is to remember the things to be thankful for. That isn't always an easy thing to do independently. A loving parent can help.
Young people should take responsibility for their social media use and have a plan in place when situations turn harmful. Giving them open access to a trusted adult and having a plan of action in place for addressing problems in a sensitive way can help the child's self-esteem, confidence, and trust. It can also teach them invaluable coping and problem-solving skills.
Social media has its merits, but it has given far too much access to our children, and those children have far too much freedom with social media. The result is overuse, misuse, and abuse. It's time to pick up the reins and get control of the runaway stagecoach that is carrying our kids into places they should never know.