On any given day, one-third of American teens visit their social media pages several times. Amid the scrolling and posting, they are bombarded with images showing standards of what is normal, beautiful, and successful. For many, the challenge is reconciling these images with their own reality, and it’s not always a happy ending.
Social media has changed the way people connect and communicate.
There are many benefits of using social media, such as helping family and friends stay connected or providing a platform for change and advocacy. However, as the Senior Social Worker at The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, I have seen firsthand how social media can negatively affect mental health, particularly for teens and adolescents.
According to a 2020 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens ages 13–17 have access to a smartphone, and roughly half of teens report that they are online “almost constantly.” Excessive social media use poses many concerns for teens’ mental wellness. In fact, a recent study published in The Lancet shows a correlation between social media use and depression: Teens who used social media more than five hours per day reported a marked increase in depressive symptoms (50% for girls vs. 35% for boys).
There are many reasons why this may be true. First, social media use distracts teens from doing all of the things that foster mental wellness. For example, instead of spending time with family and friends, doing homework, engaging in hobbies, or getting outside to get some fresh air, many teens are spending their time scrolling and interacting only through social media. In addition, social media shows a curated, idealized version of life. This can impact teens who struggle with an eating disorder or are in recovery by exposing them to unrealistic ideals of beauty, with a focus on embracing diet culture and thinness. Also, social media generates FOMO—“fear of missing out.” Teens can see in real time all of their friends who are hanging out without them, contributing to feelings of isolation.
Another concern with social media is the lack of content oversight. Parents need to be especially vigilant in monitoring which sites their teens are frequenting and which influencers they follow. Social media sites should also shoulder more of the responsibility to monitor content. Further, parents need to be aware of what their own teen is sharing. Teens who are prone to oversharing could become a target for being bullied or bully others.
For better or worse, social media will likely remain an important part of the daily lives of teens and adolescents. Social media sites and parents both have a responsibility to protect teens from unsafe content and limit excessive social media use. The mental wellness of young people in our community depends on it.