A relatable scenario for any American parent with teens is going on a drive, only to see your child taking multiple selfies of themselves with their phone, and then posting it on a social media platform like Instagram or Snapchat. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 90% of teens aged 13-17 have used social media, and teens are online on average nine hours a day, not including time spent on homework. Given the large amounts of time teens spend on social media platforms, it should behoove us to ask if such use has any association with their mental well-being?
According to the CDC’s Bi-Annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 57% of teen girls experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, which has increased dramatically from 36% in 2011. 30% of teen girls have also seriously considered suicide, up from 19% in 2011. The numbers for teen boys are not as dramatic but still worrisome, as 29% of teen boys experience persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, up from 21% in 2011. 14% of teen boys have seriously considered suicide, up from 13% in 2011.
It is crystal clear that the mental health of our teens has deteriorated at alarming numbers and rates, but what is causing this phenomenon, and to what extent if any is social media the culprit? A 2019 research study based on population based data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study published in the Journal of eClinicalMedicine found the magnitude of association between social media use and depressive symptoms larger for girls than boys, similar to the findings in the CDC’s Bi-Annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In this study, greater social media use related to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem, body weight dissatisfaction, and higher depressive symptom scores.
An experimental study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology sought to examine the causal relationship between social media use and well-being in undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. One group of students were asked to limit social media use to 10 minutes per day, while the other groups could use social media as usual. The limited use group showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression when compared to the group that could use social media as usual.
Whether or not you personally believe social media is contributing to the demise of our youth’s mental health, it is apparent that American teens are spending more and more time on social media platforms. This means there is often less time spent in other activities like personal interactions with friends and family, and less time making meaningful connections with loved ones.
Recently, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned of an epidemic of loneliness in America in a New York Times Op-Ed. He writes, “The increased risk of premature death associated with social disconnection is comparable to smoking daily- and may be even greater than the risk associated with obesity”. Providing actionable steps to combat loneliness, he then writes, “we have to negotiate our relationship with technology, creating space in our lives without our devices so we can be more present with one another”.
There is no question that social media provides positive opportunities to remain connected with friends and loved ones, and bestows a unique opportunity to use our voices to inspire meaningful change in society. Despite these advantages, the sheer amount of time that our teens are spending on these platforms may be harming their mental well-being, as much scientific evidence suggests. As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we must evaluate judiciously the time our children are spending on social media platforms. Their health and well-being depends on it.