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Teens & Social Media Use: What’s the link?

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Take a moment and think back to the last time you went on social media. What did you see? Maybe one of your acquaintances had posted a silly group photo of her and her soccer teammates. Maybe you watched another friend doing the Blinding Lights dance challenge in his living room with his parents. You’ve probably seen costume parties, Sweet 16 birthday parties, and graduation parties. 

To anyone scrolling through their feed, it would seem as though everyone was having the best day of their lives.

That’s the beauty of participating on social media. All these platforms—Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and more—are wonderful in many ways. They allow us to:

  • Bridge the physical distance between friends and family
  • Connect with people from all over the world
  • Become exposed to new ideas, cultures, and insights
  • Learn essential skills to build positive relationships and careers
  • Express our unique personalities
  • Highlight our big accomplishments
  • Become inspired by others’ accomplishments

However, what is really happening in all of these ‘grammable moments? New research shows that while we’re scrolling through our feeds, our emotional states are taking a turn for the worse.

There’s a growing body of research that links heavy social media use with depression and loneliness. One study surveyed 506,820 high school students about their smartphone habits and mental health. Researchers found that spending more time on social media was more likely to lead to mental health issues. Equally importantly, spending more time on non-screen activities (think face-to-face social interactions, physical exercise, and homework) is correlated with fewer mental health issues.

We can see indicators of this connection in our history with technology, too. The first iPhone was released in 2007. By 2015, 92 percent of teens and young adults owned a smartphone. Unfortunately, the rise in depressive symptoms follows the rise in smartphone ownership, even when matched year by year. From 2010 to 2015, there was a 30 percent spike in students seeking help for anxiety and depression symptoms at college counseling centers.

It’s hard to deny the benefits of smartphones and social media. It’s also worth understanding and examining the effects of these forces on our lives.

Social media and perceived isolation

When we perceive that we’re socially isolated, we’re at higher risk for developing anxiety and depression. A 2017 study demonstrated the correlation between time spent on social media and perceived social isolation, which brings up the following questions:

  • Does spending time looking at highly curated social feeds lead us to feel more excluded?
  • Do those of us who feel socially isolated spend more time on social media to feel a sense of belonging?
  • Is there a self-perpetuating cycle at play here?

In addition, some experts believe that the connections that we form over social media are less emotionally satisfying, leading us to feel more socially isolated. 

Moreover, we’ve all felt a bit of social media-driven FOMO, or fear of missing out. FOMO is the fear of being disconnected from our social networks, and sometimes, FOMO can eclipse whatever situation we’re presently in. The more we’re tuned into social media, the less we’re tuned into real life. Instead, we might obsess over why we weren’t invited to a trip to the mall that we’re seeing on Snapchat, or making sure we don’t miss a conversation on Instagram Stories. But if we’re always trying to keep up to the never-ending stream of online updates, we’re prioritizing activities that aren’t as emotionally rewarding and can actually make us feel more isolated.

Social media and self-esteem

Another risk for depression is the loss of self-esteem, especially when we compare ourselves negatively against filtered and Facetuned images of girls who appear to be prettier and slimmer, or guys who appear to be more admired and more affluent.

It’s easy to forget that celebrities have entire teams to do their hair, makeup, outfits, and photography before striking a pose for the camera. When we start to normalize highly curated Insta-celebrities, our self-confidence takes a big hit. Instagram is particularly notorious for being the platform that leads most young people to feel anxious and depressed, particularly when it comes to body image.

Not only does looking at a feed make you feel inadequate—it can also be dangerous for the mental health of the influencers themselves. When you place a lot of your time and sense of self-worth into your amount of followers and engagement, you transfer your sense of identity to the external world. It’s harder to develop resilience, and it can take a long time for your self-esteem to recover.

Less time spent on self-building activities

Over half of Gen Z-ers spend over six hours on their mobile devices every day. But if you’re spending a lot of time on your phone, you aren’t getting much in return to make you feel good about yourself.

Let’s say that you exchanged one hour of browsing social media to work on an activity that helped to build your sense of identity. What other ways would you spend your time?

  • Learning a new skill, like coding or painting
  • Developing your talents, like singing or playing an instrument
  • Engaging in physical activity, like walking the dog or rock climbing
  • Practicing self-care, like journaling or reading a book

All these pursuits are creatively challenging, which serves to boost our self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.

Disrupted attention

Social media is built around instant gratification. Especially with push notification technology, we’re used to seeing and getting exactly what we need in one or two clicks. Because things are so available on demand, we develop the impression that we can multi-task effectively.

Is this true? Can we actually do several things at once, successfully?

Scientists say not to believe the hype. It turns out that multitaskers do less, and do it worse. What’s worse, you could be harming your long-term memory and creativity by juggling multiple tasks simultaneously. 

Too much instant gratification lowers our patience, self-control, and discipline—all the skills that go hand-in-hand with doing well in school and in life. When it comes time to take care of important things (like homework, research papers and presentations) we’re less focused, and it takes much longer than it should. That cuts into your free time and adds a lot more stress.

Sleep deprivation

Another good reason to limit your screen time? You’re probably losing valuable sleep time.

We’ve all been there: It’s way past your bedtime, you have to get up early for school tomorrow, but you just can’t seem to stop scrolling that Instagram, Twitter, or Reddit feed. No matter how many times you tell yourself “just one more post,” you just keep going deeper into the social media abyss.

But did you also know that sleep deprivation is one of the most common contributors to depression in teenagers? This is especially tricky because 60 percent of adolescents report spending screen time right before going to bed.

According to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, teens who spent three or more hours a day on electronic devices were 28 percent more likely to get less than seven hours of sleep, and teens who visited social media sites every day were 19 percent more likely not to get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep has a lot of negative consequences: you’re less able to regulate your mood and emotions, learn, and get along with adults. In fact, teens who average less than seven hours of shut-eye are 68 percent more likely to have at least one risk factor for suicide.

Blue light emitted from your mobile device screens can interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Especially before bedtime, light disrupts your circadian rhythm, or your body’s biological clock. Light suppresses the secretion of our primary sleep hormone, melatonin, which makes it harder for us to feel relaxed and ready for bed.

And the effects cascade to the next day. When you’re underslept, it becomes way more difficult to stay alert, focused, and creative. And when we’re fatigued, we feel less social, so we might be more apt to pick up the phone for easy entertainment. The cycle continues from then on.

Minimizing the negative effects of social media use

Now that we know all the risks and warning signs of too much social media use, it’s time to set boundaries around our smartphones.

Here are some ideas for how to limit yourself from binging on social media:

  • Set a timer. When you’re about to open a social network, limit yourself to 5, 10, or 15 minutes of scroll time. Try to find balance between your online and offline activities.
  • Put your device away. When your phone, laptop, and tablet are out of sight, you’re less likely to mindlessly pick them up.
  • Turn off your notifications. When was the last time that a push notification was actually urgent? The vast majority of notifications are unnecessary. Disable your notifications to minimize interruptions.
  • Use Do Not Disturb. This will silence notifications, alerts, phone calls, and text messages while you’re spending your time more productively.
  • Be mindful when using social media. Be honest with yourself about how time spent on social media makes you feel. Take note of any triggers. For instance, can you recall a specific influencer’s feed that makes you feel bad about yourself? Unfollow them! Your mental health comes first.
  • Prioritize face-to-face time. If you find yourself feeling isolated and scrolling your feed to pass the time, hop on a phone call or video chat instead. Browsing profiles, liking, and commenting aren’t substitutes for real social interactions.
  • Resist the nighttime scrolling marathon. Develop a gadget-free nighttime routine. Eat a light snack, take a warm bath, and tuck into a good book. (And if you can, use an old-fashioned alarm clock to wake up. If you use your phone’s alarm function, try to keep it out of reach from your bed.)


All of that doesn’t mean that you need to delete all your social media apps. In today’s day and age, it’s unrealistic to go completely offline, seeing as to how almost 90 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds use the internet for social networking.

It just means that we all need to be more mindful of when we start to feel the negative effects of social media. When you spend a lot of time looking at other people’s lives, it’s easy to fall for the illusion that everyone’s life is somehow easier, cooler, or better than yours.

Instead, it could be worthwhile to shift your social media time to platforms that put you at lower risk for developing mental health issues. The general consensus among teens is that YouTube provides a positive social media space, but that time spent on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram tend to increase feelings of anxiety.

You can also reframe the way you think about screen time. Try to look at social media as a treat. You might not splurge on DoorDash or go to the movies every day, but you can reward yourself with these small treats when you feel like you deserve it. So think of social media in the same way: allow yourself some screen time after you’ve checked a big item off your to-do list.

Finally, if you notice that your mental health is becoming heavily impacted by social media use, that’s a sure sign that it’s time to change your habits. 

  • Talk to your friends and family about how social media is affecting you. 
  • Create boundaries around social media time, and ask a friend or family member to help you stick to them. 
  • If you’re concerned or notice any signs of depression due to overuse, let someone know immediately.

These guidelines—limiting screen time, spending more hours on self-building activities, and using social media sparingly and mindfully—will help you develop resilience against the negative effects of social media. 



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