Is Social Media Bad for Teens?

A deep dive into the effects of social media on adolescent mental health 

By Emma Heneveld and Salma Metwally

Social media usage continues to rise, affecting the mental health of millions

The widespread use of social media has a serious impact on people’s daily lives. The average American spends 7 hours and 4 minutes looking at a screen each day, and the latest figures suggest that the average person spends upwards of 40% of their waking hours on a screen with a connection to the internet. Between 2019 and 2021, the average time spent on a mobile device screen increased by 30 percent, from just under three hours to over four hours, and global screen time averages are likely to continue growing.  Meanwhile, public concern has grown regarding the potential harm that social media could do to people’s mental health; general awareness of mental health is higher than ever before, including among teenagers. Yet so many adolescents continue to spend hours on their screens instead of socializing with friends or going outside.

The way social media affects our (mental) health: empirical data

In the early 2000s, when social media first became popularized, the meaningful, systemic changes that resulted from this new form of communication were clear: lost family members were reunite, organ donors were found, friends were made, and skills were shared. Today, social media brings up many concerns, like how to handle content that isn't meant to be shared with a teen audience. Social media in itself is not harmful, but depending on how it’s used, it can have a positive or negative impact on a person.

Today, a lot of people rely on their smartphones to be a constant companion, which can lead to patterns similar to those of addiction. 47% of Americans are addicted to their phones and check their devices, on average, every 12 minutes. This “addiction” can subsequently lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and sadness. Stress levels also play a big role in the impact of social media on mental health. There are multiple disorders that have developed simply because of social media. Examples include FOMO (fear of missing out), snapchat dysmorphia (obsession with significantly editing one's own digital pictures and, in extreme cases, physical appearance), communication overload (too many notifications), availability stress (feeling like you can't take a break), and approval anxiety (monitoring signs of approval such as comments and likes). 

Use of social media can also cause poor sleep, which can lead to worsening mental health and even physical health problems like heart disease. More social media use, nocturnal social media use, and emotional involvement in social media (such as being upset when you can't log on) are all associated with poorer sleep quality and higher levels of anxiety and despair, according to a 2016 study by the Mayo Clinic of more than 450 teenagers. Disrupted sleep is a direct side effect of social media, and not getting enough sleep is not optimal for development and is associated with decreased well-being, depression, substance use, car accidents, and poor academic performance. 

A 2019 study of over 6500 teens in the United States indicated that individuals who use social media for over three hours a day may be at an increased risk for mental health issues.  Another study on the effects of social media on college freshmen found that the more time users spent on Facebook, the stronger their belief was that others were happier than themselves. According to study by researchers at the University of Kansas, adolescents who used social media the most and engaged in face-to-face social contacts the least reported feeling the most lonely.

According to a 2023  poll conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more high school girls reported having persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021 compared to  2011. In 2011, 36% of girls reported having such sentiments. Teenage girls who use social media regularly may be especially vulnerable to mental health problems, according to data from an observational research study involving around 10,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 16. Sleep disturbances and increased exposure to cyberbullying might be blamed for roughly 60% of the effect on psychological suffering, indicating a link between the rising number of social media users and the rising number of mental health problems.

How to mitigate the harmful effects of social media and find balance

The effects of social media on mental health are, more often than not,  both significant and negative. For instance, low self-esteem, anxiety, and despair can result from social media addiction. However, it is not necessarily social media, the ability to connect digitally, that is the problem, but the type and amount of content that is consumed. Some effective strategies to reduce the harmful effects of social media are setting intentional time limits, spending more time with friends and family, charging devices outside of our rooms, educating youth about the harm of social media and how to mitigate it, and seeking out positive, motivating content. Connecting with others is important for our mental health, but the effects of social media may be paradoxical; your mental health isn’t worth more followers or likes.

Millions of adolescents worldwide continue to suffer due to the negative effects of social media. Adolescence is a critical time for brain development and puts youth at higher risk of developing mental health problems, whether it’s due to social media or other factors. Youth are especially vulnerable because they may lack resources or the proper ways to advocate for themselves. Mental Health in Youth has partnered with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization. NAMI continuously engages in advocacy and awareness with regards to youth mental health, and provides education, support, and extensive resources intended to aid youth struggling with their mental wellbeing. 

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About the Author 

Emma is a high school student from the Bay Area, California. She’s passionate about mental health and nursing, and she hopes to become a labor and delivery nurse one day. She enjoys reading, baking, and spending time with her dog, Charlie. She’s French-American but was born in Germany and has lived in Kenya.