I should probably start by admitting a rather strong bias I have. I hate social media. I mean really hate it. Do I use it? Yes. Do I hate that I use? Absolutely. Do I hate even more that I feel compelled to admit this? Oh, yes. Ok, probably not the best way to build credibility by shouting out my biases. But I think as you’ll see below, the research is paining this once blank canvas with a grim picture of social media and its psychological impact on our teens.
Let’s start by backing up a few years to where I think the story truly begins. An alarming trend has emerged over the past decade. A growing number of adolescents are seeking treatment for depression. Jean Twenge, a researcher at San Diego State University and expert on the topic, found that between 2005-2017 there was a 52% increase in the rate of major depressive disorder among adolescents aged 12-17. Many have interpreted this trend through a lens of optimism, seeing it as evidence of a waning stigma around mental illness with adolescents now more willing to seek professional help. Others, me included, cannot help but notice the suspicious timing of this spike in adolescent depression with the ubiquity of social media and smartphone usage. So, what do we actually know from the research? Does social media usage really have a negative impact on your teen’s mental health?
Most research out there has looked at the impact that mere “time” on social media has on adolescent depression. For example, a recent 2020 meta-analysis (i.e., a study synthesizing the results of previous studies) found a statistically significant relationship between time spent on social media and increased depression in teens. The daily amount of time spent on social media has been looked at closely, with most studies finding that two or more hours a day is tied to increased depression symptoms. The effects of light social media usage (i.e., less than one hour a day), on the other hand, are less clear. Nearly all research with older adolescents suggests that light social media usage does not lead to poorer mental health outcomes, with some findings suggesting light usage may even offer psychosocial benefits such as increased social connection to peers. Among preteens and younger adolescents, there is almost no research examining effects of light social media usage. While there is little debate regarding the negative effects of heavy social media use on adolescent mental health, parents are limited in what they can do with this information. The nagging question remains: what is it about social media that may cause depression in teenagers?
Researchers have begun to look beyond the effects of mere time spent on social media platforms. For example, a small number of studies have explored the differing effects of social media usage by age. There is strong evidence to suggest that preteens and younger adolescents are far more vulnerable to the negative impacts of social media compared to older adolescents. Bullying often peaks during the preteen years, with smartphones and social media providing a 24/7 ripe-for-bullying platform. Even without bullying, early adolescence is a fragile and malleable time for a child’s development, with younger teens less likely to question the distorted realities presented on social media. While light social media use may be beneficial for older adolescents, there is no evidence suggesting this is true for younger adolescents. Gender has also emerged as another key factor, with social media negatively affecting adolescent girls far more than boys. Finally, some research has looked at how specific social media behaviors influence mental health outcomes. In 2015, two researchers found that adolescents who use social media more for social comparisons and reassurance seeking (e.g., posting a capture with the caption, “Do I look pretty today?”) tended to report higher depression symptom severity.
While we have much to learn about social media and its impact on teens, parents are understandably hungry for guidance on how to navigate this relatively new parenting facet. Considering what we do know, I’ve assembled the following working list of recommendations for parents regarding teens and social media use.
1.) No social media until high school. As described above, there is strong evidence to suggest that younger adolescents and preteens are most vulnerable to the negative effects of social media. While this may be pragmatically difficult to implement, the evidence is clear that children younger than 15 are at the highest risk.
2.) If adolescents under 15 are on social media, limit usage to less than one hour per day. For older adolescents limit usage to less than two hour per day.
3.) No social media usage within one hour before bedtime. The evidence suggests that social media usage can lead to delayed sleep onset and decreased total sleep time, thereby fueling the development of depression symptoms.
4.) At first, allow teenagers to access platforms that place a stronger emphasis on social connection (g., social discord, reddit, snapchat) versus social comparison (e.g., Instagram). We have learned through research how social media platforms can amplify an adolescent’s pre-existing tendency to engage in upward social comparison. Furthermore, we know that one of the few reasons why light social media use can be beneficial for mental health is that it affords the opportunity for adolescents to feel more socially connected.
5.) Monitor social media behaviors. As discussed, time on social media is just one piece to this complicated puzzle. What the adolescent is doing on social media may be more important. I advise parents to closely monitor social media use and keep a particularly close eye on behaviors such as reassurance and feedback-seeking that have been found to be associated with depression.