Never before has technology been so important in the lives of teenagers. For the current generation, Instagram and other social platforms are ubiquitous and an integral part of their social lives. For many, social media presence is an important part of self-identity and a way to interact with and expand upon one’s social network.
For parents, the use of social media can be completely baffling. Not only must you get to grips with the wide range available (think Facebook, YikYak, Snapchat) but you also must contend with fears surrounding its use and how to place limits on what your child has access to.
Many also harbour concerns about the sheer amount of time spent on social media. With smartphones widespread and easy to use discreetly it is impossible to know how much time is actually being spent on such sites. Anonymous studies hint at very high use amongst adolescents. In one study, conducted using a large sample in Ontario; 36% of students reported using social media for 2-4 hours daily, whilst 11% placed their usage at a staggering 4 hours plus. This has vastly overtaken other forms of technology such as watching television or playing videogames.
Research on Social Media and Mental Health
So what does current research tell us about social media, and what implications can it have for mental health? Quite simply, should we be worried? Judging by some recent studies the answer may unfortunately be yes.
Studies are consistently linking social media use with poorer mental health outcomes. For example, high social media use may make adolescents three times more likely to develop depression (Lin et al., 2016). Another study, which focused primarily on Facebook, explored whether Facebook influenced subjective well-being over time.
This novel study measured subjective wellbeing by texting the young participants five times per day for two-weeks. It assessed how the subjects felt throughout the day and how generally satisfied they are with their lives. Facebook negatively affected both these measures. The more people had used Facebook at a certain time, the worse they felt. It is often argued that Facebook can provide a sense of social support, however, the researchers did not find that their findings were moderated by the size of social network, supportiveness or perceived positive effects.
Social media feeds what sociologists call “relative deprivation” . This refers to the dissatisfaction individuals feel when they compare their lives to others. More often than not, we fixate on what we are lacking compared to others. This leads to a sense of inferiority and unhappiness. Of particular relevance to today’s generations is the ability to compare our lives not only to those around us, but to the rich and famous. When young people compare themselves to airbrushed and unattainable lifestyles, it is no wonder they feel deprived and dissatisfied.
Social media may also prevent teenagers from engaging in behaviour that is beneficial to their mental health. Studies are increasingly noting a link between lack of sleep and social media use (O’Keefe & Clarke- Pearson, 2011). The light of a smartphone screen disrupts adolescent’s brain activity, making it difficult for them to “switch off” when they go to sleep. Teenagers can also find it hard to relax and out their phones away, as they may be afraid of missing out on something new in their feed.
It is common sense that spending more time on smartphones may also detract from physical exercise. More time spent on technology can mean a more sedentary lifestyle as teenagers become increasingly dependent on social media . The opposite, however, can also be true. Sites such as Instagram are filled with fitness and health tips. Whilst many of these are intended to promote healthier lifestyles they can also promote negative body image. Pages encouraging the development of muscle mass can convince both people of both genders that they need to up their fitness game and change body type. Similarly, images depicting consistently slim models can encourage unhealthy diets and lower self-esteem.
Social Media and Eating
The rise in eating disorders has been well documented throughout the past couple of decades, and it has also been cemented by psychological research. As early as 1997, Harrison and Cantor predicted a rise in eating disorders due to media consumption. Whilst this media consumption referred to television and print, media is even more ubiquitous now in the form of social media. Subsequently, researchers have found consistent links between body image, social media and eating disorders (Derren & Beresin 2006).
Social Media and Anxiety
Anxiety may also be linked to social media use. Feeling left out actually activates the amygdala, which is the brain – centre for all of our most basic requirements. A sense of being outside of one’s social circle activates the amygdala. In an attempt to avoid this we can increase our efforts to avoid missing out by compulsively checking social media. This creates a cycle of anxiety.
Social media use is not an entirely bad thing and in fact, can have some really positive uses. However, the research available to us at the moment does indicate that teenagers should not be spending an excessive amount of time on social media. Try speaking to your teen about their usage, and maybe discuss a phone free time in the home (maybe over dinner). Whilst you cannot prevent access to media, you can help your child create boundaries.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Derenne, J. L., & Beresin, E. V. (2006). Body image, media, and eating disorders. Academic psychiatry, 30(3), 257-261.
Harrison, K., & Cantor, J. (1997). The relationship between media consumption and eating disorders. Journal of communication, 47(1), 40-67.
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., ... & Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PloS one, 8(8), e69841.
O'Keeffe, G. S., & Clarke-Pearson, K. (2011). The impact of social media on childre
Sidani, J. E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J. B., Hoffman, B. L., ... & Primack, B. A. (2016). Association between social media use and depression among US young adults. Depression and anxiety, 33(4), 323-331.