What to Make of the Social Media Findings About Teens

What to Make of the Social Media Findings About Teens

If you’re like me, you weren’t necessarily surprised at the findings released by a Facebook whistleblower to the Wall Street Journal on social media and teenagers. It’s something we’ve known for awhile, that social media is a significant force behind the uptick in depression and anxiety amongst teens and tweens. Upon further investigation into this particular study released by Facebook, it became clear to me that there were some flaws in this research just based on how many people they studied and the research methods they used. We actually already have much better research that has already highlighted the damage that social media can cause to someone’s mental health, but it’s actually a more complicated story than “social media is bad for kids.” Here’s a quick rundown of things you, as a parent, should be aware of.

Here’s what we do know based on the research that’s already out there. Social media use, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter, is associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, poor body image, and eating disorders in teens and tweens. These are associations, meaning we’re not totally sure whether these are causing all the aforementioned issues, but they do seem to be related. Time spent on these apps was also found to be more impactful to mental health, so the more time spent on social media the worse the symptoms. If there are reasons that social media is actually causing these issues, it’s largely speculative at this point. The psychological community points to comparison, bullying, and feeling left out as some of the reasons that social media can be so harmful to its users. 

But like I said before, it’s not exactly black and white. Studies have also found that social media has been shown to provide emotional support during difficult times, education on mental health, decreased loneliness, and social support to people feeling marginalized. I can attest to this in my own work, I’ve had a lot of teens ask about mental health concepts they learned about on TikTok or Instagram, which has led to some very productive conversations. I’ve also had patients who have felt very alone in their struggles find community through social media that has helped improve their feelings of belonging and de-stigmatized their struggles. 

What should you, as a parent do to navigate this very complicated landscape with your tweens and teens? Here are some tips:

  • As the adult, it’s important that you model healthy use of this technology. You should closely monitor your own time spent on these platforms and how they make you feel. Talk about it openly as a way of modeling healthy coping skills. For instance, “I noticed I was spending a lot of time on Instagram and wasn’t feeling too great about myself. I decided to take a week -long break to get back to things that make me feel good.” 
  • Teach them how to use social media when you allow them access on their phone. Explain that social media is a “highlight reel,” that people post pictures of themselves during moments they want you to see, not sad or embarrassing moments. Point out pictures that are doctored by filters, or that are taken at a flattering angle. Have them play around with filters and compare it to the original picture. Remind them that if they look that different with a filter, so do other people. We call this “social media literacy” and it can help mitigate issues with body image and eating disorders. I am going to caveat this by saying that I strongly recommend you don’t allow your child to be on any form of social media if they are under 13. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act was created in part to prevent kids under age 13 from being able to sign up on social media, and younger brains have a harder time distinguishing “highlight reels” from reality. 
  • Keep tabs on how long your child is spending on social media and who they’re following. I would discourage your child from following too many celebrities or people they don’t know. Limit how much time they can use these apps since we know that the more time they spend on them, the worse they will feel. 
  • I also encourage you to turn on all the privacy settings and make sure they understand they should not share their personal information with ANYONE. Even if they know them. You never know when an account has been hacked. Consider investing in a parental monitoring app like Bark that monitors content and will alert you if there’s a suspicious interaction occurring online.

Social media is such a pervasive part of society now, and most kids can’t exist socially unless they are on some form of social media. It’s important that we, as parents, guide them in the use of this very powerful medium and teach them how to make it work for them and lessen the negative impact it can have on their mental health. It will be worth the time and effort and incessant eye-rolling, I promise.

Shannon Odell, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lake Oswego, Oregon