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How Social Media Influences Adolescent Mental Health

The Prevalence of Social Media Among Adolescents

Social media has become a huge part of the everyday lives of adolescents, and many teenagers spend much of their day online. Social media has fundamentally changed how adolescents interact, learn and entertain themselves with platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube being particularly favoured by this age group. 

Social media has integrated seamlessly into their daily routines and adolescents use social media to stay connected with friends, share experiences and participate in social and global conversations, with many adolescents viewing social media as essential for maintaining friendships and social bonds. The prevalence of social media shapes social dynamics and relationships among teens and influences how they create, maintain and perceive their friendships and peer relationships.

Social media platforms provide a space for self-expression where teens can explore and share their identities through posts, stories and creative content. This can have a profound impact on their self-perception and development. Adolescents also rely on social media for information and entertainment, from staying updated on current events to engaging with content that aligns with their interests and hobbies.

The statistics regarding social media use in adolescence show the popularity of social media among adolescents. A report from Ofcom, looking at social media use in children and adolescents aged 3-17 found:

  • 62% of 3- to 17-year-olds and 94% of 16- to 17-year-olds had their own social media profile.
  • Only 42% of parents know the legal minimum age requirement for social media use and 60% of underage children use social media.
  • 70% of parents were concerned about the content their child could see online.
  • 84% of 8- to 17-year-olds reported being bullied online, including via social media.
  • 61% of 8- to 17-year-olds reported that social media made them feel closer to their friends and 59% reported that social media made them feel happy.

The integration of social media into daily routines means that adolescents are constantly engaged with digital content, potentially impacting their time management and daily activities. This integration can have both positive and negative implications for an adolescent’s mental and physical health and given the high engagement levels, social media can have a significant impact on adolescents’ mental health, affecting their mood, self-esteem and overall well-being.

The widespread use of social media among adolescents is a defining feature of modern society. The near-universal access and significant time spent on these platforms highlight their central role in shaping young people’s social interactions, identity formation and daily routines. Understanding this prevalence is essential for addressing both the opportunities and challenges that social media presents in the context of adolescent mental health.

Positive Aspects of Social Media

Positive Aspects of Social Media

Social media can be a powerful tool for adolescents and although attention is often given to the potential downsides of social media use, it can also have a significant positive impact on young people’s lives. Social media platforms offer adolescents opportunities to connect with peers, find supportive communities and access educational resources. Social media can serve as a valuable tool for personal growth, encourage creativity and provide a sense of belonging and understanding and may even play a role in the development and well-being of adolescents.

Some of the positive aspects of social media include:

  • Connecting with peers
    Social media offers a platform for adolescents to maintain and enhance their social connections and provides a space where they can communicate and share experiences with their peers. Social media can help to:
    – Strengthen friendships: Platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp allow teens to stay in touch with friends, share moments from their lives and engage in conversations even when they are not physically together. This helps in maintaining strong friendships and a sense of belonging.
    – Build new relationships: Social media enables teens to meet and connect with new people who share similar interests, creating new friendships and expanding their social circles.
    Example: A teen who moves to a new city can use social media to keep in touch with old friends while also meeting new ones through school or local community groups on platforms like Facebook.
  • Finding supportive communities
    Social media can be an important resource for adolescents seeking support and understanding, especially during challenging times. For example, social media can offer:
    – Mental health support: Online communities and support groups on platforms like Reddit or specific online channels, creators and groups provide a safe space for teens to share their experiences and receive advice and encouragement from others who have faced similar challenges.
    – Identity and self-expression: For adolescents exploring their identities, such as those in the LGBTQ+ community, social media offers a place to find like-minded individuals, share their stories and receive support, which can be critical for their self-esteem and mental health.
    Example: LGBTQ+ teens often find supportive communities on platforms like TikTok, Tumblr or Discord, where they can connect with others who understand their experiences and provide mutual support.
  • Accessing educational resources
    Social media can be an invaluable educational tool, offering access to a wide range of information and learning opportunities. Social media can offer:
    – Educational content: Platforms like YouTube and TikTok feature educational channels and creators who produce content on various subjects, from politics and real-world events to science, astronomy and art. This content can supplement school learning and ignite a passion for new subjects.
    – Study groups and collaboration: Social media facilitates the formation of study groups where students can collaborate on assignments, share resources and support each other’s learning. Platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook or Instagram groups are commonly used for this purpose.
    Example: A student struggling with a particular science concept might find explanatory videos on YouTube or join a study group through Instagram where members share tips and resources.
  • Personal growth and development
    Beyond immediate social and educational benefits, social media can contribute to personal growth by exposing adolescents to diverse perspectives and experiences. Social media can help to encourage:
    – Creativity and self-expression: Platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest encourage teens to express their creativity through photography, video creation and other forms of digital art. This can enhance their creative skills and provide a sense of achievement.
    – Awareness and advocacy: Social media raises awareness about global issues and empowers teens to become advocates for causes they care about. Engaging in discussions about social justice, environmental issues and other important topics can encourage a sense of purpose and responsibility.
    Example: A teen passionate about environmental conservation might use Instagram to follow and engage with organisations like Greenpeace, participate in online campaigns and share their own environmental advocacy efforts.

The Dark Side of Social Media

While social media offers numerous benefits, it also presents several significant challenges and risks, particularly for adolescents. The potential negative impacts of social media include cyberbullying, social comparison and the constant need for validation, each of which can have profound effects on young people’s mental health and well-being. Some of the potential negatives associated with social media include:

  • Cyberbullying
    One of the most pervasive issues associated with social media is cyberbullying. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying can occur 24/7, with no safe haven for the victim.
    – Impact: Victims of cyberbullying often experience severe emotional distress, including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. The anonymity of online interactions can embolden bullies and exacerbate the severity of the harassment.
    – Real-life example: A tragic case involved 17-year-old Felix Alexander, who committed suicide following years of bullying on social media. The online abuse from schoolmates and people he had never met began at the age of 10 and had a significant impact on his mental health, self-esteem and relationships and resulted in Felix’s death. Felix’s story inspired Prince William to set up an online code of conduct to help tackle cyberbullying.
  • Social comparison
    Social media often presents a curated, idealised version of reality, which can lead to harmful social comparisons. This can be done through filters changing someone’s appearance, creating unrealistic beauty standards. Additionally, people often exaggerate their experiences, happiness and wealth on social media.
    – Impact: Adolescents may compare their lives unfavourably to the seemingly perfect lives of their peers, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced on visual platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
    – Research findings: Research by Nesi and Prinstein (2015) found that social media use resulted in social comparison and feedback-seeking, which was associated with higher depressive symptoms and poorer mental health in adolescents. Adolescents who frequently compare themselves to others on social media may have worse mental health.
  • The constant need for validation
    The pursuit of likes, comments and followers can create a relentless cycle of seeking validation through social media.
    – Impact: This need for external validation can lead to addiction-like behaviours, where adolescents constantly check their profiles and posts for feedback. It can also cause anxiety and stress if the expected validation is not received.
    – Real-life example: The case of 14-year-old Essena O’Neill, an Australian Instagram star who publicly quit social media in 2015 with more than a million followers, is a good example of the relentless cycle of validation seeking. Essena shed light on the pressures and fake aspects of social media fame. She revealed that her pursuit of likes and followers had led to severe anxiety and a distorted sense of self-worth.
  • Harmful consequences of excessive use
    Excessive or unhealthy social media use can exacerbate the negative impacts mentioned above, leading to broader mental health issues.
    – Mental health issues: Numerous studies have linked heavy social media use to increased risks of anxiety, depression and loneliness among adolescents. The constant engagement with social media can disrupt sleep patterns, reduce face-to-face interactions and contribute to a sedentary lifestyle.
    – Scientific studies: Research studies have shown that excessive social media use can have adverse consequences for:
    Academic performance
    School burnout
    Mental health
    Problematic sleep habits
    Poorer relationships with others.

While social media can offer valuable opportunities for connection and growth, it also poses significant risks. Cyberbullying, social comparison and the incessant need for validation are major issues that can adversely affect adolescents’ mental health. Understanding these negative impacts is essential for developing strategies to mitigate them and promote healthier social media use among young people.

Social Media’s Influence on Mental Health

Social media, while a powerful tool for connection and information, has been increasingly linked to various mental health issues among adolescents. The constant presence of social media in their lives can significantly affect their mental well-being and contribute to conditions such as:

  • Anxiety
    The constant connectivity and the pressure to stay updated with social media can lead to anxiety. Adolescents may feel anxious about missing out on events (FOMO – fear of missing out), receiving instant feedback on their posts or maintaining their online presence.
  • Depression
    Exposure to negative content, cyberbullying and social comparison can trigger depressive symptoms. The curated nature of social media often leads adolescents to believe that others have happier, more successful lives, which can result in feelings of inadequacy and sadness.
  • Loneliness
    Despite the potential for connection, social media can paradoxically lead to feelings of loneliness. Superficial interactions and a lack of genuine connections can leave adolescents feeling isolated. Additionally, witnessing social events and gatherings they are not part of can exacerbate feelings of exclusion and loneliness.
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
    Body dysmorphic disorder involves an obsessive focus on perceived flaws in physical appearance, which may be minor or imagined. Social media platforms, particularly those that emphasise visual content like Instagram and TikTok, can exacerbate BDD by constantly exposing users to idealised body images and beauty standards.
  • Eating disorders
    The promotion of unrealistic body standards on social media can contribute to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Social media can amplify unhealthy behaviours and attitudes towards food and body image.
  • Addiction and compulsive behaviour
    Social media addiction, characterised by an uncontrollable urge to use social media and a preoccupation with online interactions, can lead to various mental health issues. Compulsive behaviour related to social media use can interfere with daily life and personal responsibilities.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
    Excessive social media use can contribute to attention problems and symptoms of ADHD. The constant barrage of information and the rapid pace of social media interactions can impair concentration and increase impulsivity.
  • Self-harm and suicidal ideation
    Exposure to content related to self-harm and suicide on social media can increase the risk of these behaviours among vulnerable adolescents. Online communities and forums that discuss self-harm and suicidal thoughts can sometimes glamorise these behaviours or provide methods for carrying them out.
  • Stress and burnout
    The pressure to maintain a constant online presence and the need to keep up with the latest trends and updates can lead to stress and burnout. Adolescents may feel overwhelmed by the demands of social media, which can lead to emotional and mental exhaustion.
Strategies for Healthy Social Media Use

Strategies for Healthy Social Media Use

Adolescents can maximise the benefits of social media while minimising its potential negative impacts by adopting mindful and balanced usage habits. Some practical tips and strategies include:

  • Set boundaries
    – Establish time limits: Allocate specific times of the day for social media use and stick to them. Set a timer or use built-in app features to limit screen time.
    – Create tech-free zones: Designate certain areas of the house, such as bedrooms or dining areas, as off-limits to devices. This encourages unplugged downtime and promotes better sleep hygiene.
    – Limit notifications: Disable non-essential notifications to reduce distractions and resist the urge to constantly check social media updates.
  • Take breaks
    – Schedule social media breaks: Plan regular breaks from social media, whether it’s for a few hours, a day or even longer periods. Use this time to engage in offline activities, connect with friends in person or pursue hobbies.
    – Practise mindful consumption: Before scrolling through feeds, pause and ask yourself if you genuinely want to engage with social media or if you’re using it out of habit. Be mindful of how different content makes you feel and adjust your usage accordingly.
  • Seek offline activities
    – Explore new hobbies: Use social media as a tool to discover offline activities and interests. Follow accounts related to hobbies like cooking, art, music or sports and then try out these activities in real life.
    – Prioritise face-to-face interactions: While online connections have value, prioritise spending time with friends and family in person. Plan outings and game or film nights or simply enjoy quality time together without digital distractions.
  • Curate your feed
    – Unfollow negative influences: Regularly review your social media feeds and unfollow accounts that consistently make you feel inadequate, anxious or unhappy. Cultivate a feed that inspires, educates and uplifts you.
    – Follow positive accounts: Seek out accounts that promote body positivity, mental health awareness and genuine connections. Surround yourself with content that aligns with your values and makes you feel good about yourself.
  • Build healthy habits
    – Practise self-reflection: Periodically reflect on how social media makes you feel and its impact on your mental well-being. Adjust your usage patterns accordingly and prioritise activities that bring you joy and fulfilment.
    – Set intentions for use: Before opening a social media app, set a clear intention for your session. Are you looking to connect with friends, learn something new or unwind? Being intentional can help you use social media more purposefully.
  • Connect mindfully
    – Quality over quantity: Focus on building meaningful connections rather than accumulating a large number of followers or likes. Nurture relationships with friends and engage in genuine conversations rather than seeking validation through metrics.
    – Be authentic: Embrace your authentic self online and resist the pressure to conform to unrealistic standards. Share your experiences, thoughts and feelings honestly and celebrate your uniqueness.

By implementing these strategies for healthy social media use, adolescents can cultivate a balanced relationship with social media that enhances their well-being and enriches their lives, both online and offline. Remember, moderation, mindfulness and self-awareness are key to navigating the digital world responsibly and positively.

Parental Guidance and Support

Parents play an important role in helping their teenagers navigate the complex landscape of social media. Effective parental guidance can mitigate the potential negative impacts of social media while promoting its positive aspects.

Parents can establish clear rules about social media usage, such as limiting screen time, designating tech-free zones and times (e.g., during meals or before bedtime) and setting age-appropriate guidelines for social media accounts. While respecting their teenager’s privacy, parents can still keep an eye on their social media activity to ensure it is safe and healthy. This can involve checking the platforms they use, the content they post and the interactions they have.

Parents should also educate their children about the potential risks of social media, including cyberbullying, privacy issues and the effects of social comparison. Awareness can empower teenagers to make safer and more informed choices online.

Open communication between parents and teenagers is essential for addressing the challenges of social media use. Some strategies parents can use to create a supportive environment and to ensure their children are using social media safely include:

  • Create a safe space for dialogue
    Encourage regular, open discussions about social media experiences. Ask about the apps they use, the people they interact with and how these interactions make them feel. Listen without judgement to create a safe space for sharing.
  • Be approachable and supportive
    Let your teenagers know they can come to you with any concerns or problems they encounter online. Reassure them that they will receive support and understanding, not punishment or criticism.
  • Discuss online etiquette and empathy
    Teach teenagers about respectful online behaviour and the importance of empathy. Discuss how their actions and words can affect others and the importance of treating everyone with kindness and respect.
  • Role model healthy behaviour
    Demonstrate healthy social media use by setting an example. Show your teenagers how to balance screen time with offline activities, maintain privacy and engage positively online.
  • Use parental control tools
    Utilise parental control features available on most devices and social media platforms to monitor and limit your teenager’s online activity.
  • Encourage offline activities
    Promote a healthy balance between online and offline activities. Encourage participation in sports, hobbies, family time and face-to-face interactions with friends.
  • Stay informed
    Keep up-to-date with the latest social media trends and platforms your teenager might be using. Understanding these platforms can help you better guide and support your teenager.
  • Address cyberbullying
    Teach your teenagers how to handle cyberbullying. Encourage them to report any incidents and block bullies. Reassure them that they are not alone and that it’s important to speak up.
  • Promote digital literacy
    Educate your teenagers about digital literacy, including how to critically evaluate the content they see online, understand the implications of their digital footprint and protect their personal information.

Some resources parents can utilise include:

  • CPD Online College: A guide to social media for parents.
  • Barnardo’s: Online safety guide for parents.
  • Parents Protect: Internet safety handouts for parents and children.
  • UK Safety Internet Centre: Social media guide for parents and carers (developed by Internet Matters, NSPCC, Parent Zone and UKSIC).
  • Young Minds: Social media and mental health guide for parents.
  • GOV.UK: Child Safety Online: A practical guide for parents and carers whose children are using social media.
Online Safety and Cyberbullying Prevention

Online Safety and Cyberbullying Prevention

Adolescents can take proactive steps to protect themselves while navigating the online world and mitigate the risks associated with social media use, for example:

  • Protect personal information
    Be cautious about sharing personal information online, including full names, addresses, phone numbers and school names. Limit the visibility of personal details on social media profiles and adjust privacy settings accordingly.
  • Use strong, unique passwords
    Create strong, unique passwords for each online account and avoid using easily guessable information like birthdays or pet names. Consider using a password manager to securely store and manage passwords.
  • Deal with cyberbullying incidents
    It is essential to respond appropriately to incidents of cyberbullying and seek support. Some tips to follow include:
    – Don’t engage: Avoid retaliating or responding to cyberbullies, as this can escalate the situation. Block or unfriend the individual responsible and refrain from further interaction.
    – Document evidence: Keep records of the cyberbullying incidents, including screenshots, messages and timestamps. This documentation may be useful when reporting the harassment to authorities or social media platforms.
    – Report and seek help: Utilise the reporting features available on social media platforms to report cyberbullying incidents. Additionally, confide in a trusted adult, such as a parent, teacher or school counsellor, who can provide guidance and support.
    – Prioritise mental health: Cyberbullying can have a significant impact on mental well-being. Seek support from friends, family or mental health professionals if needed. Remember that experiencing cyberbullying is not a reflection of personal worth and help is available.
  • Be sceptical of strangers
    Exercise caution when interacting with strangers online, especially those who initiate contact or request personal information. Avoid meeting in person with individuals you’ve only met online and never share compromising photos or videos.
  • Use resources and tools for protection
    Several tools can help to improve online safety and allow adolescents to stay safe online and reduce the likelihood of cyberbullying, including:
    – Privacy settings: Familiarise yourself with the privacy settings and controls available on social media platforms. Adjust these settings to limit who can view your profile, contact you and interact with your content.
    – Reporting tools: Most social media platforms offer reporting and blocking features to address harassment and abusive behaviour. Learn how to use these tools effectively and report any inappropriate content or behaviour promptly.
    – Parental control software: Consider using parental control software or apps that allow parents to monitor their teenager’s online activity, set usage limits and block access to certain websites or apps.
    – Educational resources: Explore online safety resources that offer tips, guides and educational materials on topics such as online privacy, digital citizenship and cyberbullying prevention.
  • Think before you click
    Pause and think critically before clicking on links, downloading files or responding to messages from unfamiliar sources. Be wary of phishing attempts and scams designed to steal personal information or install malware on devices.

By staying informed, being vigilant and utilising available resources and tools, adolescents can navigate the online world safely and confidently while minimising the risks associated with social media use. Remember that seeking help and support is essential if faced with online harassment or cyberbullying incidents.

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About the author

Nicole Murphy

Nicole Murphy

Nicole graduated with a First-Class Honours degree in Psychology in 2013. She works as a writer and editor and tries to combine all her passions - writing, education, and psychology. Outside of work, Nicole loves to travel, go to the beach, and drink a lot of coffee! She is currently training to climb Machu Picchu in Peru.

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