Over the past 10-plus years, a growing body of research has revealed the negative impact of social media and technology use on teen and young adult mental health. However, a new review study suggests that these findings may be exaggerated. As a result, experts are looking at how to use the positives of social media and the plugged-in youth culture to help young people thrive.
“As adolescents spend an increasing amount of time interacting with digital technologies, there is an urgent need to both understand effects of this usage and leverage new technologies in ways that support versus harm their mental health and well‐being,” wrote the authors of the new study, Candice L. Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen of the University of North Carolina.
Is Social Media Good or Bad?
The new analysis points out problems with the multiple studies that found few positives of social media. To cite just one recent example of research, a 2019 study by researchers at University College London tracked three years of social media and mental health statistics among 13,000 teenagers. The results showed that 27 percent of participants who frequently used social media reported high psychological stress. But among teens who used social media less frequently, only 17 percent reported high stress.
In fact, many researchers have theorized that the link between smartphones and mental health may help explain the escalating numbers of teens and young adults diagnosed with depression and anxiety. That’s because teen depressive symptoms and suicide rates began rapidly increasing around 2010, when smartphone use also rose precipitously.
But the new research review, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in January 2020, questions these conclusions. The review examined 40 studies on the psychological effects of cell phones and social media. And the researchers found that the links between tech use and depression or anxiety symptoms were small and inconsistent.
Moreover, another review, also published in January, concluded that the quality standards are low in many of the previous studies. “The association between digital technology use, or social media use in particular, and psychological well-being is—on average—negative but very small,” wrote study author Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge.
The Negative Impact of Social Media and Screen Time
While casting the results of previous research in doubt, the current studies don’t suggest that there are only positives of social media. Overall, both researchers and mental health experts agree that social media and tech use constitute potential detriments to teen and young adult mental health. Most important, increased smartphone use can result in any or all of the following:
- Decreased time outdoors as a result of increased screen time, depriving youth of the mental health benefits of nature
- Less physical activity, meaning young people don’t receive the psychological boost provided by exercise
- Increased social comparison among teens and young adults who measure themselves against peers and celebrities, and therefore judge themselves wanting
- Poor body image as a consequence of social comparison
- Possible addiction to social media, smartphones, and/or video gaming, because the brain responds to digital interaction in the same way it does to drugs
- Greater likelihood of being exposed to cyberbullying and other distressing online social interactions with peers
- Lack of face-to-face interaction, leading to poor social skills and less satisfying real-life relationships
- Fewer hours of sleep due to social media and other tech use—important because sleep deprivation may cause or contribute to depressive symptoms.
Which Comes First, Depression or Tech Use?
Clearly, there are many reasons why the negatives might outweigh the positives of social media. Most experts agree that too much screen time can exacerbate depression and anxiety. But what they don’t agree on is this controversial question: Can social media and smartphone use actually cause a mental health disorder? Is technology at the root of many cases of teen and young adult depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues? Or is overuse of social media and screens a symptom of a mental health disorder? Are young people who are suffering more apt to seek out online distraction, and less motivated to engage in healthier activities?
The authors of the new research review, and others who have reached similar conclusions, lean toward the latter explanation. They see smartphones as reflections of mental health issues, not catalysts.
Moreover, the discrepancy regarding the negatives and positives of social media led the American Academy of Pediatrics to revise a 2011 warning issued to healthcare providers about “Facebook depression.” Updated in 2016, the policy now includes the statement, “Research studies have identified both benefits and concerns regarding mental health and social media use.”
Harnessing the Positives of Social Media and Technology
Can we use social media and other digital platforms for good? Mental health and technology experts believe that we can. Here are some of the ways that online networks and tools can support well-being.
Mental health resources: Many organizations and websites now offer support via social media for those suffering from mental health challenges. Thus, they bring people together to share experiences. One study found that patients with severe mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, used social networks as a way to feel less lonely. In addition, many sites allow people to sign up to receive texts providing inspiration, positive messages, and recovery resources.
Positive inspiration: Social networks can create peer motivation, inspiring young people to develop healthy habits, try something new, follow their dreams, and speak up about things that matter to them. Teens can also find positive role models online. In addition, a wide variety of apps offer instruction and support for developing a more positive outlook and building healthy habits, such as meditation and exercise.
Connection: Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat give teens and young adults a sense of belonging and acceptance. This is particularly true for those who feel isolated or marginalized, such as LGBTQ youth and those struggling with mental health issues.
Identify formation: Young people who express their opinions on social media experience increased well-being, studies show. As a result of forming and expressing their opinions, they develop self-awareness and self-knowledge. This is beneficial to the maturation process and contributes to a strong sense of self.
Research: Another of the positives of social media is that mental health experts and researchers can use it to collect data that subsequently informs research. In addition, therapists and other professionals can network with each other within online communities, thereby expanding their knowledge and reach.
Online therapy: Licensed clinical professionals now provide therapeutic services via online platforms. Hence, they are able to reach young people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to mental health treatment. Furthermore, online therapy allows teens and young adults to stay on track with their recovery after leaving residential treatment or an outpatient program.
“Technology is bringing us into a new era of mental health treatment, in which we can provide therapy and education to people who would not seek it in person, cannot afford it, or don’t live in an area where they have access to it.”
—Jamison Monroe, Newport Academy Founder and Chairman
In conclusion, there’s no easy answer to questions regarding the psychological effects of cell phones on teens and young adults. But we can draw basic conclusions regarding what appear to be the most effective strategies: Use your phone less—and when you do pick it up, use social media for good.
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