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Adolescence

Is Social Media Use Really Problematic for Teens?

Evidence-supported tips from a psychologist to minimize risks.

Key points

  • Social media has both positive and negative benefits on mental health, and the way it impacts teens varies from person to person.
  • According to one study, 59 percent of teens believe social media has neither positive nor negative effects on them.
  • To avoid negative mental health outcomes, parents must recognize how to help teens increase digital literacy and decrease problematic use.
Rodion Kutsaiev/Unsplash
Source: Rodion Kutsaiev/Unsplash

Almost everyone is on social media. Trends over time show that the use of social networking sites such as Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook has continued to increase (Turner et al., 2021). However, the reasons for this increased use vary by individuals—especially with regard to demographics. For millennials and older generations, the use of social media may be primarily for staying connected with family and updated on current events. On the other hand, teens may use these platforms for different reasons. For example, the Pew Research Center notes about 46 percent of teens say they use social media for socializing and staying connected. Additionally, approximately 68 percent of teens say that social media helps them feel like they have people that can support them through tough times, with only 9 percent reporting that social media has had a negative impact on them (Pew Research Center, 2022). Of those who report negative effects, 16 percent of Black teens, 22 percent of White teens, and 28 percent of Hispanic teens endorsed feeling worse about their own life.

While social media may have positive impacts, one recent report claimed that social media is harmful. According to a report published by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, “TikTok recommended eating disorders and self-harm content to new users within minutes.” Additionally, the CCDH data reported that vulnerable accounts—which they described as accounts with “lose weight” in the user name—were 3 times more likely to be shown harmful videos and 12 times more likely to be shown self-harm videos.

While the study is informative, it is not without criticism. In my opinion, the study is limited in the data used for their analysis. First, the study only used 8 data points—2 simulated user accounts for each country (USA, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada). Secondly, a major concern was how the study interpreted harmful content. Specifically, it did not distinguish between positive versus negative content within each topic such as mental health or eating disorders. In my opinion, this may be a little misleading to the reader. The report explicitly states: “Within these categories, we have not distinguished content with a positive intent, for example, educational or recovery content, from that with a clearer negative intent. This is because researchers are not able to definitively determine the intent of a video in many cases and because content with a positive intent can still be distressing and may cause harm” (p. 11).

What the Research Says About Social Media Use

In reality, the science on the impacts of social media is mixed. A recent meta-analysis (Huang, 2022) found that problematic social media use was associated with distress (e.g., depression and loneliness). However, the majority of the studies currently focus on Facebook. One study that explicitly examined body image concerns found that females (84 percent) were more likely than males (16 percent) to report social media-related body dissatisfaction (Charmaraman et al., 2021). Additionally, teens in that study who endorsed body dissatisfaction endorsed checking their social media more often, experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, and spent most of their free time alone.

It is clear that we need to better understand the nuances of social media use and how it impacts teens. The way that social media impacts teens’ mental health varies from person to person. One study noted that after passive social media use (i.e., scrolling your friends' content without direct exchanges) 46 percent reported feeling better, 10 percent reported feeling worse, and 44 percent reported not feeling better or worse (Beyens et al., 2020). According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of teens believe that social media has neither positive nor negative effects on them, while 32 percent say that social media is mostly positive. Clearly, the data is mixed and individual differences exist in how teens are impacted by social media use.

Tips for Parents on Minimizing Problematic Social Media Use for Teens

Given what we know about the potential impacts of social media use and how much screen time contributes to health and mental health outcomes, it is important for parents to help their teens practice digital wellness. While parents may differ on how much or little they control their teens' access to social media, here are a few effective strategies to help minimize risks.

  1. Model healthy social media use: Although teens are growing to be more independent, they often base their behavior on what they see, not what they’re told. Be sure to model healthy social media use and don’t constantly be on your phone scrolling Instagram or Facebook. This will help your teen learn to set healthy boundaries. Instagram recently launched a tool to also help teens monitor the amount of time they spend on the app.
  2. Be familiar with supervision features: If you have concerns about your teens' use, it can be helpful to supervise their accounts. While this may not be the best option for all teens and parents, the supervision feature on Instagram allows parents to better understand the content their teen is consuming and who they are following.
  3. Maintain open communication about social media use: Often as parents, you may not understand many aspects of social media platforms or even think teens should use them. However, it can be helpful to maintain communication about why they want to use social media platforms. You should also ask questions to better understand if they are experiencing any distress from the content they are consuming. Here are some tips from Instagram on talking with teens about online interactions.
  4. Find a therapist, when needed: If you notice that your teen is struggling with problematic use of social media or their use is having an impact on their mental health, be sure to seek professional help. A licensed mental health professional or psychologist can help identify potential risks and help your family identify strategies reduce problematic social media use.

Disclaimer: The content of this post was written by Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D. and does not represent the views or opinions of Meta/Instagram.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

References

Beyens, I., Pouwels, J. L., van Driel, I. I., Keijsers, L., & Valkenburg, P. M. (2020). The effect of social media on well-being differs from adolescent to adolescent. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 10763.

Charmaraman, L., Richer, A. M., Liu, C., Lynch, A. D., & Moreno, M. A. (2021). Early adolescent social media-related body dissatisfaction: Associations with depressive symptoms, social anxiety, peers, and celebrities. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: JDBP, 42(5), 401-407.

Huang, C. (2022). A meta-analysis of the problematic social media use and mental health. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 68(1), 12-33.

Turner, E.A., Jernigan-Noesi, M. & Metzger, I. (2021). Confronting Anti-Black Racism and Promoting Social Justice: Applications through Social Media In K. Cokley (Ed.), Making Black Lives Matter: Confronting Anti-Black Racism. Cognella Publishing.

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