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How Social Media Affects Teens

5 min read

How Social Media Affects Teens – Before they shower, brush their teeth, and eat breakfast, many teenage girls start their mornings by reaching for their phones. On the way to school, they might scroll through Instagram posts from their classmates, share videos from their favorite TikTok creators, or respond to messages from a group chat with their best friends late at night.

These may seem like trivial interactions – although adults are guilty of their digital obsessions – but for many teenage girls, social media platforms have a significant impact on their mental and emotional health.

How Social Media Affects Teens

Researchers who examined data from more than 10,000 teenagers found that frequent social media use disproportionately affects the mental health of teenage girls more than that of boys. While this may seem like a side effect of a generation addicted to their cell phones, the answer is as simple as unplugging them. Despite the harmful effects, many teenage girls continue to use these digital platforms out of fear of missing out, said Natasha Varela, director of child, youth and family services and a therapist at Northwestern University’s Family Institute.

Effects Of Social Media On Teens

“Young people often have an aloof, carefree attitude,” said Varela. “They know cyberbullying is possible, but they will think, ‘If it happens to me, I can handle it.’

Counselors, parents, and other caregivers can encourage teen girls to develop resilience and healthy habits while surfing the Internet and to use social media to positively contribute to their mental and physical health.

“Even if they act like it doesn’t bother them, teenagers want us to pay attention to them,” Varela said. “They still want to be taken care of.”

Screen time is an increasingly pervasive way for people of all ages to spend their daily lives. A 2019 report from Common Sense Media estimates screen use by teens and 18-year-olds ages 8 to 18 (excluding schoolwork or at home):

Teens: This Is How Social Media Affects Your Brain

According to the report, both age groups spend the majority of their screen time watching TV and playing games, followed by browsing social media and other websites.

“Many of these applications occur at night,” Varela said. “As a result, they don’t get enough sleep, which can be problematic for their development.”

When scrolling through social media, teens view different types of content, including posts from friends and family members, content from celebrities and influencers, and targeted ads from brands and companies that sell products and services online.

In terms of what they post themselves, boys and girls differ in the type of content they post to the world and in their emotional attachment to the content they post, Varela said.

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While boys are more likely to share funny or entertaining things, “girls really use social media to connect with other people,” she said. “Many teenagers use this space to present themselves the way they want to be seen, but girls are under pressure to worry about how others perceive them.”

A 2018 Pew Research report shows that girls behave significantly differently when using social media and are more likely than boys to post about their personal beliefs, feelings and issues.

View a tabulated version of the data at the bottom of the page for information about what teens are posting about on social media.

While the long-term effects of adolescence characterized by constant internet presence are not yet fully understood, several researchers have tracked the browsing habits of young children and adolescents to determine whether potentially negative mental health effects are associated with online activity behaviors.

Teens And Social Media: The Kids Think They’re All Right

Bullying has long been a source of psychological distress for young people. In a 2019 report from The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health on the links between social media use and mental health and well-being, researchers found that cyberbullying and lack of sleep accounted for 60% of the link between social media and psychological distress . For girls, social media use was inversely associated with well-being.

The study authors also suggested that the effects of social media use are largely due to what screen time deters teens from: sleep and exercise. According to the report, “mental health promotion measures should include efforts to prevent or increase resilience to cyberbullying and ensure adequate sleep and physical activity among young people.”

“It’s hard to admit when it becomes a problem because there’s pressure to keep up with what their colleagues are doing,” Varela said.

In a 2017 study published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, researchers found two types of reciprocal depressive cycles associated with using the social media platform Instagram: surfing and posting.

Positive & Negative Effects Of Media On Teens

Browsing Instagram was linked to an increase in depressive mood among adolescents. Likewise, an adolescent’s initial depressed mood was associated with an increase in Instagram posts. This creates a painful cycle: the more you browse, the more depressed you become. The more depressed you are, the more you post.

According to the study, both cycles were similar in boys and girls and suggests that further research is needed.

A 2019 JAMA Network Open cross-sectional study of teen suicide rates from 1975 to 2016 shows the largest percentage increase among girls ages 10 to 14.

In an invited commentary in the JAMA Network Openstudy, the authors suggest that stress from social media may be a common factor associated with suicide attempts. And why are these rates increasing so quickly for 10- to 14-year-old girls? …[However] there is speculation and some empirical data suggesting that increased social media use among youth is a factor that may be associated with increased suicide.” The authors of this commentary go on to cite several studies that provide more information about the Girls’ use of social media reveals, including that “girls use social media more often and are more likely to be victims of cyberbullying.”

Teens’ Views About Social Media

If negative behaviors are not addressed, Varela says the results can include “self-harm, feelings of hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and the possibility of wanting to harm others.”

A 2017 study of adolescents’ reactions to social media browsing shows that negative self-comparison predicted an immediate impact on emotions after browsing others’ social profiles.

The researchers also said that subjects’ awareness of the curated nature of social media and unrealistic highlight reels could be a useful protective factor for adolescents to understand the difference between reality and expectations.

“The external pressure is more pronounced for girls,” Varela said. “The pressure on them to look a certain way is unbalanced.”

Teenagers And Social Media — Ethical Digital

If teens know that cyberbullying is a guaranteed part of the online experience, why don’t they choose not to?

“There is a pressure to participate in something negative and a desire to appear a certain way to peers,” Varela said.

Find a safe place to check in. Use one-on-one meetings with a counselor, parent, or friend to discuss social and emotional well-being confidentially and honestly.

Create your own boundaries. What is a good balance between screen time and other responsibilities? Set limits on screen time or social networking apps.

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Respect other people’s boundaries. If you know your colleagues are offline or going to bed at night, respectfully avoid keeping them awake with messages or social media posts.

Talk openly about self-confidence and feelings. Think about the impact cyberbullying has on others, or think about a time when you were affected by similar behavior.

Role play hypothetically. How would you handle it if someone posted things about you that weren’t true? Who would you ask if you needed help? Talk about strategies for reacting—or not reacting—before reacting to the moment.

Varela said when teens think more consciously about what they do before posting online, they are less likely to share things they regret or that might hurt others.

The Truth About Teens, Social Media And The Mental Health Crisis

It’s okay for teenagers to spend time online. Creating an online presence is part of forming your identity, building social skills, and getting to know the world on your own

“Teenagers are often moody and unruly,” Varela said. “There is a baseline and then there is a behavior that is clinically important.”

A total ban on social media use could lead to rebellious and fear-based behavior and give the false impression that social media only has negative effects, he added. Many teens may find it helps with social isolation, self-expression, and interpersonal relationships. Instead of banning screen time, parents and adults can talk to teens about optimizing technology to benefit their lives.

Identify intentions and habits. Use a face-to-face conversation to ask your teen what their intentions are with social media. Do they use it to make friends or find romantic partners? What impact do you want to have on others with your social media content?

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Talk about tone and language. Ask teens to think about how their words affect others around them. Discuss the short-term and long-term consequences of harmful language.

Set screen time limits and technology-free zones. Use in-app and in-device restrictions that limit screen time and social media access without blocking them completely.

Stop cyberbullying before it happens. Educate teens about the dangers of hostile and bullying behavior, both online and in real life.

Model of attention and presence. If you’ve set up a tech-free zone at home or school, make sure you and other adults follow the rules, too.

Social Media’s Negative Effects On Teens

Look for behavior changes. Teens may suddenly change their behavior, such as becoming withdrawn

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