Is Social Media Harming our Teens’ Health?

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The digital world and its multiple social media channels place increasing pressure on teenagers to have a presence online.   It’s an open debate as to whether there is a causal link between social media use and mental health.

With the number of likes a post generates becoming a proxy for popularity, teens inevitably compare themselves with others.  Whether it’s physical appearance, friendship groups, perceived accomplishments or failures, or simple life circumstances, everything is on display for others to see and comment on.  They may well know that their peers and media influencers share only highlights, but the fear of missing out, or worse, of not feeling included, can play heavily on a young person’s self-esteem which can result in symptoms of anxiety, depression, negative thoughts and even self-harm. 

Time spent online is also time not doing something else.  The pull to be online can all too easily get in the way of real life face time with friends and family or with sports and other activities that help develop social interaction skills and build empathy and compassion.   Worryingly, the desire to scroll, to see what others are up to or to watch the latest funny video can cut into sleep time too.  Teenagers need about nine hours sleep and estimates suggest that many teens are falling well below that, being tempted to stay awake in order to be online.  Chronic tiredness affects concentration, alertness as well as physical and mental well-being, potentially contributing to underlying mental health issues.

While being alert to the downsides, social media use in teens does not need not be all bad news.  On the positive, social media makes socialising easier and connection with others immediate.  It can become a supporting mechanism, creating a sense of community.  Teens who struggle with face-to face interaction, social anxiety and low social confidence may benefit from connecting with other teens where they can share their feelings, find help,  support and friendship amongst like-minded people.  

Teen down-time is essential and social media always going is part of their lives.  It’s important to recognise this and to use our conversations with teens about social media to reinforce the positives.   Rather than trying to limit screen time, or restricting access, parents and responsible adults can help their teens develop good social media habits so they connect positively with others online.  Teens can be encouraged to think about the channels they use, whether what they see is all that it appears to be and when they talk online, to consider how other people may feel.  Knowing basic cyber safety rules will help keep their online life safe and rewarding.  Communication, openness and critically, trust, are essential in supporting our teens navigate their social media connections.    

Social media is here to stay, and as technology develops, it has the potential to provide positive support in a teen-friendly way.  Mental health apps could become effective channels to deliver information and provide a safe space in which teens can to talk about feelings and be guided on how to respond, encouraging good habits of self-help and self-care.