Teen mental health: What role does social media play?

Linked to both good and harm, it should be used carefully, the U.S. Surgeon General says

a photo of a kid wearing an olive green sweatsuit with the hood up. He has dark brown curly hair and pale skin and is scrolling on his smartphone.

Most kids live on their digital devices. Now data show that the social media they visit online could play a role in their mental health — something that has been on the decline among U.S. teens and tweens.

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Rates of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses have been increasing in young Gen Z’ers for at least a decade. And in recent years, scientists and therapists have often flagged social media as one potential cause. New data confirm it could be a contributor. But how big a role it plays also appears to depend on how kids choose to use it.

“I think that everybody who studies adolescents has probably thought quite a bit about the impacts of social media, or at least the internet,” says Janis Whitlock. She works remotely in Colorado for Cornell University. A research psychologist, she’s been studying internet use by adolescents since the early 2000s.

In recent years, the internet has done some great things. It’s brought people closer together. It’s helped people form big communities that can span the world. And it can be an important place for people to find support and connection.

No surprise, Gen Z is living online more than ever. But some adolescents can be exposed to content that is harmful or triggering. For instance, one 2022 survey found that nearly half of all teens have been cyberbullied or harassed online.

Those most likely to have faced this were older teen girls, people of color and kids who identify as LGBTQ+. The same survey found that nearly two in every three Gen Z’ers encountered hate-based content on social media.

Social media is also a space where people are constantly comparing themselves to others. Am I pretty enough? Strong enough? Smart enough? Cool enough?

One study of kids 13 to 17 years old found that almost half reported that time spent on social media made them feel worse about their bodies. Only about one in every seven said viewing social media made them feel better.

You can take control

“It’s hard to study the impacts of social media on mental health,” Whitlock explains, “because everyone uses it.” There’s no large group of others to which researchers can compare them. Still, one study of nearly 6,600 U.S. teens linked use of social media to depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem and a poor body image.

The takeaway, Whitlock says, is that social media use needs to be intentional. By that, she means used for some purposeful goal, not just to pass the time or as a distraction.

In May 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on kids’ social-media use. There’s still not enough evidence to say social media is safe for kids, it concluded. But there was ample evidence, it said, to warn kids that they should take care when using it.

Whitlock asks teens she works with to put together a “menu of practices” that promote good mental health. It should include little things they enjoy.

Whitlock suggests that if kids feel anxious, they should go back to that menu again and do something from their list — instead of looking for distractions on their phone and social media.

Suicide was the third leading cause of death among U.S. teens ages 15-19 in 2021. If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, please seek help. In the United States, you can reach the Suicide Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting 988. Please do not suffer in silence.

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