Understanding Social Media & Mental Health

Social media in its current incarnation is a somewhat new phenomenon, having emerged less than 20 years ago. However, it’s had a significant impact during that time, perhaps most especially on teens.

Unfortunately, the convenience of social media has had ill side effects, including increases in mental distress, self-harming behavior, and suicide among teenagers. According to Pew Research Center, 92% of teens are active on social media.

The use of mobile devices and social media has also increased with mental health issues. Globally, around one in seven adolescents suffer from a mental disorder, according to the World Health Organization, and suicide is the “fourth leading cause of death among 15-19 year-olds.”

If society fails to address these sobering statistics, the problems they’re suffering will likely extend into adulthood, resulting in them struggling to live healthy, fulfilling lives.

Social media platforms aren’t entirely harmful, as they do provide avenues for teens to express themselves, socialize, and learn technical skills. The key is to help offer young adults ways to use online social media platforms healthily.

Teen girl staring at cell phone

The Link Between Social Media and a Decline in Teens' Mental Health

Adolescence is already a difficult time of life without the complications social networks add. This age frame is crucial for developing good social and emotional habits that lead to healthy adulthood. Unfortunately, studies are showing statistics that are far less than ideal.

Research published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health highlights that in Ontario, mental distress in teens was 24% in 2013, but by 2017 had jumped to 39%. Furthermore, in Canadian girls, self-harm hospitalizations rose by 110%, and suicides have dramatically increased.

American statistics also tell a sad story of depression, self-harm, and suicide rates rising, which coincides with a marked increase in social media use. In the United States, 89% of persons aged 13 to 17 have a smartphone, double from six years ago, and 70% use social media “multiple times per day.”

In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory warning of a mental health crises among young adults caused, in part, by their overuse of social media. The Protecting Youth Mental Health advisory stated that in the United States between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates for young people aged 10 to 24 increased by 57%.

Furthermore, since social media networks often incentivize excessive use, today’s teens are experiencing issues like FOMO, needs for validation, envy, inadequacy, and fear of rejection, according to UNICEF.

Even passive use of social media can lead to problems, including sleep deprivation, ADHD, depression, or anxiety, to name a few. In addition to mental health issues, the more a teen is online, the higher the risk of cyberbullying, notes Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

It’s becoming more apparent that there is a meaningful relationship between social media and mental health issues in teens. Studies continuously indicate a negative impact on teens from too much time spent on social media use.

The Developing Brain and Social Media

Research indicates doing any activity for extended amounts of time “causes physiological changes in the brain,” notes Neurogrow, and social media can cause significant changes. The article further elaborates how constant streams of information obtained on social media create adverse effects on the brain, reporting “heavy social media users” perform worse when given cognitive tests, particularly in areas that test attention spans and ability to multitask.

Memory deficits also correlate with social media use. Children and teens are particularly vulnerable because their brains are still developing. Additionally, social media offers immediate dopamine releases, making users feel happy, but this is not necessarily a healthy type of happiness. Instead, it more resembles addiction. Neurogrow states, “Studies show that the brain scans of heavy social media users look very similar to those addicted to drugs or gambling.” In other words, too much social media time can lead to permanent brain changes, as studies show.

Social Media Can Contribute to Sleep Deprivation

Researchers have long suggested that too much screen time directly impacts a person’s ability to achieve quality sleep. Many teens keep smartphones by their side even while in bed, and they are disruptive. Notifications, ringing, and vibrations going off at all hours can cause teens to check phones late into the night continuously.

Even sleep texting has become a real problem for teens. Since sleep deprivation is associated with depression, substance abuse, and anxiety, this adds another problematic link between social media and the well-being of young adults.

Checking in With Your Teen: Warning Signs of Mental Health Problems

Fifty percent of people who develop mental health disorders do so by age 14. Knowing early warning signs is essential. Knowing early warning signs is vital, as Mental Health America’s statistics indicate 83% of 11 to 17-year-olds are at-risk for anxiety, and 91% are at-risk for depression.

Adults can help alleviate such problems by being aware and watching for signs of mental health disorders. Warning signs that your teen may need help include:

  • Feelings of sadness persisting longer than two weeks
  • Actions that promote self-harm or suicidal ideation
  • Notable changes in sleep behaviors
  • Drastic personality changes
  • Uptick in irritability
  • Out-of-control behavior
  • Eating problems, such as overeating or purging
  • Sudden feelings of being overwhelmed or fearful
  • Increase in anxiety during everyday events
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • Severe mood swings that impact relationships

Parents, family members, and caregivers should pay closer attention when their children exhibit signs of emotional distress. If your child begins to demonstrate such signs, consider consulting their pediatrician.

Talking to Your Teen About Mental Health

Mental health is a topic that is often considered to be taboo, but this is exactly the opposite. It should be a topic people feel free to talk about openly and frequently.

Avoiding discussions further contributes to stigmas that mental illness is something to be ashamed of. If a teen breaks their arm or is diagnosed with a physical illness, society is typically not ashamed about it. Mental illnesses should be considered the same way because they are real illnesses too.

When talking about mental health with teens, be straightforward and encourage questions. Be prepared to offer concrete explanations they understand and carefully listen to what they have to say. Also, plan to have the discussion in a place where the teen feels comfortable and watch for their reactions during the conversation.

Most importantly, ask them how they are feeling or if they’ve experienced previous feelings that might indicate a mental health issue. Be supportive and ask what you can do to help.

Your Teen and Social Media: Finding Balance to Stay Well

As with most things in life, the key to good health is finding balance. Social media is no exception. To help your teen offset the negative effects of social media use, take these steps:

  • Pay attention to where teens spend their online time
  • Learn who your children are talking with on social media platforms
  • Set time limits on how long phones can be used based on their age and responsibilities
  • Ask questions and be interested in their online friendships or other activities
  • Talk to your teen about how social networks often spread misinformation
  • Teach children other methods of obtaining information or entertaining themselves
  • Be a good role model with your own social network and internet use
  • Spend family time and frequently make plans to do offline things together

Helping your child achieve a healthy balance of online and offline time can go a long way towards fostering better physical development, cognitive health, and overall wellbeing.

If you believe your child has already been harmed by the effects of social media, please contact us for a free consultation.

Frequently Asked Questions

For individuals and children who have been

We only handle cases on a contingent fee basis. This means that we are paid a portion of any recovery obtained in the case and you do not owe us any attorneys’ fees if the lawsuit does not result in a recovery.

Every case is unique. Our attorneys will work with your family to evaluate your potential case and help you evaluate whether filing a lawsuit or other legal proceeding is in your family’s best interest. Generally speaking, the types of cases we handle involve serious mental health effects, including attempted or completed suicide, eating disorders, inpatient mental health treatment, or sexual trafficking/exploitation that was caused by or contributed to through addictive or problematic social media use by teens and young adults.

We are a law firm based near Seattle, WA comprised of lawyers who have spent their entire careers representing victims who have been harmed by dangerous products. We are also parents. Shocked and troubled by the recent revelations about the harm caused to teens and young adults by social media platforms, which powerful technology companies have designed to be highly addictive, Social Media Victims Law Center was launched specifically to help families and children who have suffered serious mental harm or exploitation through social media use to obtain justice.

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