Social Sciences

Social Media Depression in Teens: What to Know

Written by Mamie M. Arndt


It’s no secret that teen social media use has risen quite a bit in recent years.

According to the 2021 Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens:

  • Teens averaged 8 hours and 39 minutes a day of screen time outside the classroom — a 17 percent increase from 2019.
  • Teens spent, on average, 87 minutes using social media each day.
  • 62 percent of teens said they used social media daily, but only 34 percent of teens said they enjoy using social media “a lot.”

Within the same rough timeframe, adolescent mental health has taken an alarming decline. In 2021, 44 percent of high schoolers reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, according to a nationally representative survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

This concern isn’t limited to older teens, either. A review of 29 studies explored mental health during the pandemic in over 80,000 children and adolescents worldwide. One in four youths had depression symptoms, nearly double the global rate before the pandemic.

Without a doubt, feelings of depression can relate to grief, trauma, and any of the challenging circumstances teens find themselves grappling with. Still, with a recognized link between social media use and depression in adults, you might wonder whether your teen’s social media use might play some role in depression, or any other mental health symptoms they experience.

Does the internet offer a social lifeline? Or is it more of an anchor, weighing kids down? The answer’s more complicated than you might think.

Experts have long debated whether social media can harm or help adolescents’ mental health.

Research from 2019 suggests teens are more likely to have a depressed mood if they spend a lot of time and effort on their social media accounts. Filtered images and curated timelines can cut down teens’ self-esteem, making them feel ugly or boring compared to their peers. They may also encounter more harassment and cyberbullying.

On the other hand, evidence also suggests that social media can boost mental health. Teens who feel depressed might go online to reach out to friends experiencing similar issues, for instance. Some teens may even form digital support groups, offering sympathy and advice to peers also coping with depression symptoms.

According to a 2017 review, the effects of social media depend more on the person than the platform. Teens with strong social skills and self-esteem often use social media to enhance their lives. They may go online to stay in touch with school friends or share their artwork on internet forums.

Social media may contribute to depression risk for some teens. It can also worsen existing depression symptoms.

Possible mental health risks of social media include:

Cyberbullying

When your teen goes online, they may encounter bullies from school, anonymous trolls, sexual harassment, and more. According to 2020research, internet harassment can create drastic shifts in teens’ mood, often making them feel ashamed, afraid, and humiliated. In some cases, cyberbullying can lead to thoughts of suicide.

Social comparisons

Social media encourages teens to compare themselves to their peers, measuring follower counts, comments, likes, and so on. It’s natural to have a general sense of your “social status,” so to speak, but spending hours fretting over where you fit into the food chain isn’t all that helpful.

Experts have linked excessive social comparison behaviors to depression. Teens who spend their time envying others’ lives or mulling over their own shortcomings tend to have higher levels of depression.

Cultivating self-worth isn’t always easy, but it can prove particularly difficult if you consider yourself the least popular, least funny, or least attractive person in your friend group.

Distraction

Social media is a well-known time sink. You might have felt a sudden pang of realization yourself, after spending most of your weekend browsing Twitter instead of doing all the fun activities you daydreamed about during the week.

Teens in school may experience regret mixed with panic as they rush through all their homework at the last minute. Some teens might also get so wrapped up in the digital world they forget about basic self-care. They may:

All of the above can play some part in depression.

Consider encouraging your teen to create their own self-care checklist.

Doomscrolling

During a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic or a mass shooting, teens may find themselves scrolling compulsively through post after post on the subject. They may feel unable to turn away from the endless updates on their feed, even as their stress and worries ramp up.

Staying informed is important, absolutely. But 2020 research suggests ruminating over the many upsetting things taking place around the world for hours on end can make teens feel worse than they otherwise would.

It’s essential for adolescents — and everyone else — to take breaks from news and current events and get reacquainted with life’s small pleasures, like the smell of fresh muffins or birds singing outside the window.

While social media use does pose a few possible risks, it can also serve as a powerful tool for emotional support.

Some of the possible mental health benefits of social media include:

Connecting with friends and family

Social media has made it easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones, especially if you live far apart or have different schedules. And social connection, of course, plays a vital role in mental well-being, especially for teenagers as their brains mature.

During the disruption of remote schooling and lockdowns, many teenagers felt stressed and alone. But according to findings from the 2021 CDC survey mentioned above, high schoolers who felt more connected to adults and peers at school were less likely to:

Here’s how to help someone talking about suicide.

Need to talk?

If you (or your teen) is having thoughts of suicide, or simply feeling overwhelmed by emotional distress, you have options for support right now.

Calling or texting a crisis helpline can put you in touch with trained, compassionate crisis counselors who can support you in finding ways to cope and work through those feelings.

Meeting new people

When teenagers don’t fit in at school or home, they may “find their people” online. Digital friendships can provide deep and life-changing bonds, even if the parties aren’t all in the same room. Your teen and their online friends may share a niche hobby, have a specific diagnosis in common, or simply enjoy each other’s company.

Research from 2018 suggests marginalized teenagers, including LGBTQIA+ teens, can particularly benefit from online friendships. The internet offers many safe havens for teens to anonymously explore and get comfortable with their identities. Feeling accepted by distant friends, or even complete strangers, can make a huge difference.

Information

The topic of mental health has become much less taboo among younger generations. As teens browse social media, they may come across posts where influencers or peers discuss their own experience with mental health conditions like depression.

These awareness posts may not always contain the most accurate details, but they can still spark conversation — and a search for more information.

Teens who don’t recognize their depression as a mental health condition might blame their symptoms on hormones or personality. Learning other teens also have depression — and the steps they take to manage it — could motivate them to seek help.

While social media itself is neither bad nor good, your teen could have an unhealthy relationship with social media if they:

  • can’t seem to resist checking their accounts, even if they say they want to cut back
  • routinely seem angry, sad, or withdrawn after looking at their phone
  • get unusually agitated whenever they have to go offline, even for short periods like family dinner
  • neglect sleep, homework, or meals in favor of social media time

If you think social media has started to affect your teen’s mental health, you might feel tempted to confiscate their devices entirely.

Keep in mind, though, that social media makes up a key part of how modern teenagers socialize. Realistically, you can’t cut the internet out of their lives any more than you can cut out driving or sexual exploration. An important part of parenting involves teaching kids how to enjoy these things responsibly so they can continue to do so as they reach adulthood.

These tips can help you teach your teen to set some boundaries around social media use.

Ask questions

In order to help your teen, you’ll likely need to understand more about their experience online.

The best way to figure that out? Try asking directly.

Ask your teen

  • “What are you watching (or listening to)?”
  • “Who are you talking with?”
  • “What do you enjoy about using social media?” (You can follow up with, “Does it help distract you from negative feelings?”)

Tip: It’s generally more effective to work these questions into a conversation about their daily activities, rather than lob them at your teen one after the other.

Set reasonable limits

Once you know more about what’s driving their behaviors, you can brainstorm a few ways to address the issue together.

For example, if they tend to lose track of time on the internet and stay up late, you could set a family rule that all devices get charged in the kitchen overnight.

Try to create rules everyone in the family can follow so your teen doesn’t feel singled out.

Avoid snooping

Teenagers have a developmental need for privacy. As you might remember from your own teenage years, it’s difficult to express yourself freely when your parent constantly hovers at your shoulder. Flipping through their phone daily or demanding they let you read their chat logs and texts usually proves about as effective as banning the internet entirely. In other words, it really doesn’t help.

Ironically, experts note that parents who try to force information out of their teen often know less about their social media habits than if they had done nothing at all. Many teens learn to hide problems from parents to avoid being “punished” with isolation or surveillance.

Yet a trusting parent-child relationship often creates the ideal context for a teen to open up, ask for support, and explore healthier digital habits. Building open communication can take time. In the long run, though, trust may prove more effective than strict monitoring.

Teens with depression might rely on social media to cope with unresolved symptoms and emotional distress.

As a parent, you can help your teen by asking questions and encouraging healthier internet habits. A therapist, however, can offer more support by helping your teen address depression and any other long-standing concerns, whether they directly relate to social media use or not.

Some social media-related concerns a therapist can help with include:

  • Anhedonia. Some teens who feel emotionally numb may turn to memes or online arguments in order to push themselves into feeling something.
  • Brain fog. Teens who feel groggy and unfocused may scroll through social media because they can’t summon the mental energy to do anything else.
  • Existential fears.Teens worried about climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other threats may constantly check their feeds for updates on new crises.
  • Low self-esteem. Teens with a low opinion of themselves may draw their sense of value from social media likes and follows.
  • Peer pressure. Teens hoping to go viral might try dangerous pranks or risky activities.
  • School issues. A teen having trouble understanding material at school may procrastinate by going online instead of asking a parent, friend, or teacher for help.
  • Social anxiety. Teens who fear judgment or rejection from others may retreat to the digital world, where they can communicate through a screen and avoid conversations that trigger fears of criticism.

Getting professional support for these concerns can help reduce feelings of depression and improve a teen’s quality of life — both online and off.

While social media may offer an easy scapegoat for teen depression, the digital landscape is too vast to be solely good or bad. Some teens living with depression may benefit from the social support they find online, while others may find that using social media makes their symptoms worse.

Like many other things in life, social media is typically best enjoyed in moderation. If you’re worried about your teen’s social media habits, a good first step involves starting a conversation.

Some concerning online behaviors may mask deeper emotional distress, but you can help your teen by listening to their needs and connecting them with a therapist.


Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.





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Mamie M. Arndt