The current generation of teens has social and emotional challenge never before experienced. Not that long ago, a teen might have been socially stigmatized by a rumor floating around the high school campus. They may have been the brunt of a mean prank or suffered the pain of passing by a group of peers gossiping about them. My how things have changed! These days, a teen may bear the scorn of hundreds of their peers on social media, where all bets are off with public shaming and bullying, and decorum is simply non-existent. Hiding behind their smartphones, today’s teens are nothing short of ruthless when it comes to the online social landscape.
While the introduction of social media platforms a decade ago, or longer if you count MySpace, were heralded as fun tools for making new friends and connections, it has morphed into something potentially harmful for teens’ emotional wellbeing. So, how does social media affect teen mental health? It turns out, teen mental health is impacted in multiple ways: Social media can promote cyber bullying, slut shaming, spreading of rumors, destroying reputations, declining self-esteem, jealousy and envy, skew perceptions, instigate fights, and promote shallow interpersonal relationships. Society, and parents in particular, need to take a hard look at the detrimental effects of social media on teen mental health.
How Does Social Media Affect Teen Mental Health?
Although the effect of social media on people of all ages is becoming a growing concern, the impact on teens is very concerning. The teen brain is still developing its executive functions, which are the ones that help in decision-making, impulse control, emotional regulation, self-control, and cognitive control. Along comes social medial, with the constant flow of images and messages that can overwhelm a teen’s ability to process and manage the input. Teens, by nature, are highly emotional, making their response to the social media messaging sometimes over-reactive. So, how does social media affect teen mental health? Profoundly, it appears.
Some of the ways that social media can contribute to teen depression and anxiety include:
- Feeling they do not measure up to the beauty physique standard they see on social media posts
- Enduring public criticism, mocking, bullying, shaming
- Causing envy or jealousy for the life or things their friends possess
- Obsessing over getting enough likes, follows, or shares of their posts to feed their self-esteem
- Feeling bad when seeing events to which they were not invited
- Experiencing the fear of missing out (FOMO) so obsessively tracking all social events and being constantly attached to the phone
- Being swayed to go along with the crowd and liking posts or images that they really are not comfortable with
- Contributes to sleep deprivation if there are no parental limits on cell phone use
- Having unflattering or sexual photos or videos shared and feeling powerless to control it
- Feeling pressured to constantly groom one’s “brand” or image with perfect (and often altered) photos
- Thwarting communication skills due to relying heavily on social media instead of face-to-face conversations
Social Media Fuels Teen Insecurity
The bottom line is that social media has the ability to create a deep sense of insecurity in teens. Adults are much better armed, having lived longer and acquired coping skills and perspective, to assimilate what they see on social media platforms and take it with a grain of salt. Teens, however, are much more exposed to nasty, cruel behavior and a more aggressive form of peer pressure to conform to the dominant cultural mindset. This fuels a sense of insecurity that can result in going along with the crowd instead of thinking for oneself.
When so much emphasis is placed on the number of likes one receives on a post, or how many followers one has, insecure feelings will be ever present. Teens will stress over a dearth of likes for their posts, taking it as a sign of not measuring up or being irrelevant. They also may feel inferior to peers who have substantially higher follower rates or social media engagement.
How Social Media Can Become Addicting
Studies and brain mapping research have been undertaken to demonstrate how social media has the potential to elicit the same types of brain chemical responses as a drug. The brain’s reward system comes into play each time a teen sees that their post has received a “like” or they have acquired a new follower. These jolts of dopamine establish a desire to use the platforms more and more—just like a drug.
Just as with a substance of abuse, as the use of social media escalates, consuming more and more of the teen’s time and drawing them deeper into the emotional folds contributing to how does social media affect teen mental health, the more engagement they crave.
Setting Social Media Use Guidelines for Teens
Parents can help their teens navigate the social media landscape in a variety of ways. It is not advisable to forbid them to use social media, as in most cases the teen will simply sneak to do so by creating stealth accounts. It is more productive for parents to allow a certain amount of safe, responsible social media engagement within specified boundaries. These guidelines might include:
- Limiting time on social media by setting up screen-free periods and shutting down social media at a specified time each night
- Initiating open conversations with the teen regarding any issues they might be experiencing due to their social media
- Encourage the teen to take breaks from social media to engage in a hobby or outdoor activity
- Have the conversation early on about the dangers of sexting and cyber-bullying
- Set boundaries about the types of social media platforms they can use
Because social media isn’t going anywhere, it is best for parents to take the offense and partner with their teen to help them negotiate the challenges and emotional landmines together.
BNI Treatment Centers Provides Teen Residential Mental Health Treatment
BNI Treatment Centers is a Los Angeles-based residential treatment center for teens ages 12-17. BNI offers the highest standard of psychiatric care for teens in need of a more intensive approach to treating such conditions as depression or anxiety that may have resulted from social media use. For more information about the program, please contact BNI Treatment today at (888) 522-1504.