Social media can sometimes be a force for good, connecting teenagers who feel isolated or marginalized. However, a growing body of research highlights the negative psychological effects of social media on adolescents.
Among other factors, the cyberbullying, social comparison, and sleep deprivation associated with social media use wreaks havoc on teen body image, self-esteem, and mental health. And girls appear to be at greater risk than male teens.
How the Psychological Effects of Social Media Impact Girls
A recent study by researchers at University College London tracked three years of social media use by 13,000 teenagers, starting when they were 13. The teens also self-reported about their social media experiences and their mood and well-being.
After compiling the data, the study authors concluded that the social media effect on girls is driven by three primary factors. Boys who participated in the study did not appear to be as vulnerable to these factors, which include the following:
- Inadequate sleep—girls stayed up late to continue scrolling through their social media feeds, a habit known as vamping
- Exposure to cyberbullying—having harmful, false, or private content about them posted on social media
- Lack of physical activity—scrolling social media on their phones or other devices meant that girls sat for longer periods of time and had less time for exercise. As a result, they missed out on the beneficial impact of exercise on mental health.
According to the study, which was published in the journal Lancet, 27 percent of the teens who frequently used social media reported high psychological stress. For teens who used social media less frequently, only 17 percent reported high psychological stress.
Depression, Anxiety, and Social Media
This study is the latest contribution to a growing body of research revealing the troubling psychological effects of social media on adolescents. Smartphone use increased rapidly beginning around 2010, and surveys of adolescents show that teen depressive symptoms and suicide rates also increased beginning around this time, especially among females. Researchers theorize that the rising rates of teen depression and anxiety may be driven in part by the effects of social media in particular and technology use in general.
For example, a 2018 study compared the mental health of 14- to 17-year-olds who used social media seven hours per day to that of teens who interacted with it for only about an hour a day. The frequent users were more than twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depression, been treated by a mental health professional, or taken medication for a psychological or behavioral issue during the 12 months preceding the study.
Furthermore, a CNN study of social media use among 13-year-olds found that participants who checked Facebook or other networking sites between 50 and 100 times a day were 37 percent more distressed than those who checked just a few times a day.
Are Social Media ‘Friends’ Real Friends?
For teens, the approval of peers is incredibly important. Friendships have enormous significance during adolescence. Therefore, the psychological effects of social media on teens result in large part from their interactions with other teenagers.
Not all of those effects are bad. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report that surveyed 743 teens, 81 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 say social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives. Moreover, 66 percent of those teens reported that social media connections make them feel as if they have people who will support them during difficult times.
However, the survey showed a gap between real friends vs. “fake friends”—social media connections who teens didn’t really spend time with in real life. In fact, only 24 percent spent time with their online friends in person, outside of school. Furthermore, more than half of teens had unfriended a social media connection as a result of cyberbullying. And close to half reported that they often felt overwhelmed by the drama on social media.
How Cyberbullying Impacts Teen Mental Health
Growing awareness of cyberbullying over the past decade has led to increased research on the psychological effects of social media. A review study looked at scientific literature on the link between social media and teen mental health. Researchers concluded that cyberbullying effects on adolescents include increases in the following symptoms:
- Depressive affect
- Suicidal behavior
- Physical issues, such as stomachaches and headaches.
In addition, the review found that teens who commit acts of cyberbullying also suffer. Perpetrators are more likely to report substance use, aggression, and delinquent behaviors.
The Negative Psychological Effects of Social Media on Teen Body Image
Teenagers spend much of their time on social media looking at curated and filtered photographs of their peers and of celebrities. When they compare themselves to these “perfect” images, they often feel inferior, leading to lower self-esteem and negative body image. Hence, online social comparison is associated with depressive symptoms among teenagers, particularly adolescent girls. In addition, Facebook use has also been linked to a higher risk of eating disorders.
According to a survey by Common Sense Media:
- 35 percent of teenagers on social media worry about being tagging in unattractive photos
- 27 percent are stressed out about how they look when they post pictures
- 22 percent feel bad about themselves when nobody comments on or “likes” their photos.
Social Media, Stress, and Sleep Deprivation
The psychological effects of social media indirectly include the impact of sleep deprivation. That’s because teens stay up late looking at social media. Moreover, the technology itself keeps teens awake. The artificial blue light given off by smartphones activates arousing neurons in the brain that disrupt the body’s ability to produce melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone.
The resulting sleep deprivation increases teens’ physical and psychological stress. In fact, an ongoing lack of sleep over time can increase the likelihood of teen depression, substance abuse, and risk-taking behavior, while reducing emotional-regulation skills.
In summary, the psychological effects of social media threaten adolescent well-being at multiple levels. But there’s one difficult yet simple way to counteract these dangers: Put down the phone. Here’s how teens and the family can take a digital detox.
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