Adolescents and teens are reporting alarming rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Sadly, we are seeing suicide as the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-29. With 95% of adolescents owning smartphones and 45% saying they are online almost constantly, it’s understandable that parents will point to social media as a contributing factor to their teen’s struggles with depression and anxiety.
So is there really a link between social media and depression?
One study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology seemed to verify that belief. It said there was a causal link between social media and a teen’s mental well-being. Researchers focused not only on depression but also the loneliness that young people felt when they were spending too much time online.
However, that may not be totally accurate.
A new study from researchers at the University College London and Imperial College London reveals that social media – by itself – isn’t what causes depression or an increase in anxiety. After analyzing the data, researchers realized that although teens are using social media regularly, it’s other behaviors that are the real problem.
While online, some teens are being harassed and cyberbullied. Or, as they scroll down their feeds, they develop an attitude of “compare and despair,” which can diminish their self-worth. Social media is also causing some teens to lose sleep as well as not being physically active, which can also contribute to depression and moodiness.
What Do the Experts Say?
Katie Hurley, psychotherapist and author of the new Teen Depression Workbook for Teens, reviewed the latest research.
“With the near-constant media attention to the potential relationship between social media use among teens and depressed and/or anxious mood, it’s understandable that parents are concerned,” she tells Parentology. “It’s very important, however, to keep in mind that current studies show a correlation, not causation, and that we need further research into it.”
Hurley reminds parents, “It’s also crucial to remember that no two teens are the same, and all teens experience a range of stressors right now.”
Social networking has brought fulfillment to many people’s lives, particularly teens who have grown-up with online life and use it to have fun, connect and decompress. Reality is, in many ways it’s sometimes hard for them to separate their real-life from their digital one. They have formed friendships, social connections, and gotten help through online support groups.
“Some teens use social media to find other teens enduring similar struggles,” Hurley continues. “To simply prohibit social media use can be detrimental to teens in marginalized groups.”
Hurley points out that our relationship with social media and technology, in general, is the real problem. We all – teens and adults, alike – need to find a healthy balance between digital communication and face to face contact. Both play a role in the lives of teens right.
Too many teens have been suffering in silence when it comes to cyberbullying and online harassment. As a therapist, Hurley continues working with young people on a regular basis who have been victims of cyber-hate. She regularly tells parents they can’t ignore the fact that cyberbullying does occur among teens, and this can result in symptoms of anxiety and/or depression or low self-esteem.
To that end, it’s important that we engage in frequent, open, and honest communication with young people to explore how social media affects them and those around them, and what positive changes they can make to improve their relationships with their peers.
Developing digital resilience offline empowers your teen to be prepared for the ugly-side of social media as well as helping them find their healthy screen-time balance.
The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health
What are the impacts of social media use on mental health? According to a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2018, adults most often use YouTube (73%) and Facebook (68%). Additionally, over 60% of adults visit Facebook (74%), Snapchat (63%) and Instagram (60%) at least once per day. These statistics are staggering and suggest that the time spent on social media websites in the United States is tremendous.
Unfortunately, spending so much time on social media (or even a little time, depending on the content) can have extremely negative effects on mental health. Overusing social media has been associated with various mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, feelings of isolation, low self-esteem and even sleep deprivation. Research on the impacts of social media on the brain has led to some scientific insights on these mental health conditions.
In recent years, more published studies have established a direct link between social media use and depression. Depression can be caused by many factors, including excessive use of social media. It is likely that depression can also lead to increased social media use as well. Some tell-tale signs that an individual may be experiencing social media depression include:
- No longer seeking pleasure in activities an individual used to enjoy, and instead deferring to social media
- Increased sleep disturbances including lethargy from staying up too late on social websites
- Feeling decreased self-esteem after going on social media
- Having trouble concentrating or performing everyday tasks
- Using social media to escape an individual’s reality
Like depression, several studies have linked anxiety to social media use. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), social media anxiety disorder is a recognized mental health condition. This disorder is characterized by severe anxiety caused by not being able to check or have access to one’s social media accounts. Some symptoms of social media anxiety disorder are very similar to addiction and include:
- Increasing social media use has a negative impact on relationships with others
- Dishonesty about how much time an individual spends on social media accounts
- Withdrawing from loved ones in order to spend more time on social media
- Not being able to stop using social media despite the strong desire to do so
- Poor performance in work or school as a result of too much social media use
- Feeling withdrawal symptoms after an individual loses access or cannot check their social media accounts
- Spending an excessive amount of time on social media accounts per day (6 or more hours)
- Only feeling validated when your social media accounts have been updated
Does social media create isolation? A 2016 study showed that adults who spend more than two hours per day on social media platforms were twice as likely to feel socially isolated than their counterparts who spent half an hour or less online per day.
In a 2017 study on social media use, individuals also reported feeling more socially isolated despite being virtually connected. Individuals who visited social media sites nearly 60 times per week or more, were three times more likely to feel socially isolated than their counterparts who visited these websites less than nine times per week.
However, current research has not determined causation. We don’t yet know if social media directly creates isolation, or if feeling isolated causes an individual to increasingly use social media. One thing is clear, that using social media in excess can make individuals feel lonely.
Social media and self-esteem is another hot topic in social media research. In a study conducted in 2018, there was a negative association between self-esteem and more time spent on Facebook for males, but not for females. The researchers also found that females with lower self-esteem tended to spend more time on Facebook comparing themselves to their peers.
These results indicate the complexities and many variables associated with social media research and determining if social media has an effect on self-esteem.
An association between social media use and sleep disturbances was found in a 2016 study of adults in the United States. In young adults ages 19-32, there was a strong correlation between 60 minutes of social media use per day and medium to high levels of sleep disturbances. Again, this study did not address causation — e.g. whether social media use affects sleep directly or whether sleep disturbances lead to greater amounts of time spent on social media outlets.
Social Media and Depression Studies
Linking social media and depression has been an evolution. In a study conducted in 2013, college-aged students were asked about their Facebook use and depression. The majority of study participants were female (58%) and Caucasian American (91%). This study concluded that there was no direct link between social media use and moderate or severe (clinical depression).
In a 2016 study, over 1,700 adults were surveyed about their social media use and depression. A majority of the study participants were Caucasian Americans (57.5%) and half were women (50.3%). When accounting for all other variables, a correlation was found between the amount of time spent on social media and increased odds of developing depression. Thus, from this study, it would appear that social media can cause depression in adults.
Finally, a more recent study conducted in 2018 looked at college-aged students from the University of Pennsylvania. In this study, a direct link was found for the first time between increased social media use and depression/loneliness. The researchers used a different approach to come to these conclusions by using a control group versus a group of students that were forced to limit their time on social media to less than a half hour per day. The study found that the individuals who spent less time using social media were less lonely and depressed compared to their counterparts who spent more time on social media.
Thus, depending on the study, the methods of questioning used by researchers and the characteristics of study participants (age, sex, ethnicity, etc.), there may be different results. This is not to say that one study is more or less true over another. As social media use continues to grow and evolve, even more definitive research will likely be conducted.
Social Media and Teenage Mental Health
In a recent survey, the most common social media platforms used by teenagers include YouTube (85%), Instagram (72%) and Snapchat (69%), compared to their adult counterparts who mostly use Facebook and Youtube.
Other striking statistics about teen social media use include that:
- 95% of teenagers have access to a smartphone
- 41% of teens report constantly being online or on a social media platform
- About one-third of surveyed teens think that social media has a positive impact on their lives
- 45% of surveyed teens think social media has neither a positive nor negative impact
- Nearly one-quarter of surveyed teens think that social media has a negative impact on their lives
In most of the studies involving social media use and adolescent depression, similar patterns emerge as in studies involving adults. Just as adults can experience depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation and loneliness from overuse of social media, adolescents can experience the same conditions as well