It certainly comes as no surprise to many that there is a link between increased use of social media and skyrocketing rates of mental health diagnoses across the world. And while clinical research remains somewhat divided on the issue, several news reports over the past few weeks have revealed that Facebook and Instagram have been aware of their platforms’ negative effects on mental health--but have kept its extremity under wraps.
An internal series of research findings at the company detailed how young adult users were disproportionately affected by the negative mental health implications of Instagram specifically, including (most seriously) increased thoughts of suicide. And researchers at the company have known about these negative effects without publicizing them for years. Since 2019, Instagram has known that they “make body image issues worse for 1 in 3 teen girls.” And yet, the number of influencers who peddle dangerous diet myths and other impossible beauty standards has exploded, creating “a relationship of dependency between influencers and their followers." Critically, body image issues are often correlated with other mental health issues, including eating disorders, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
These new insights into the serious, often harmful influence of social media on mental health further cement what clinical research has found over the past decade. According to research, 90% of adolescents use social media regularly. But social media itself is designed to be addictive, leading young adults into a sometimes negative feedback loop of using social media to feel better only to then overuse it and feel worse.
One of the reasons teens are more susceptible to the addictive qualities of social media is that going through puberty and navigating young adult life is precarious, leaving them vulnerable to negative and toxic influences. “The brain is still very much developing when you’re a teenager,” explains Dr. Caroline Fenkel, LCSW, Chief Clinical Officer at Charlie Health. “And when it's inundated with images of life that don’t fully capture the human experience, a curated version of reality coupled with filters and editing––it can really skew your sense of belonging and self-worth.”
Research has definitively found that young adults’ social media may be related to problems with emotion regulation, which refers to one’s ability to take control over their emotional state (Rasmussen et al 202). The relationship between social media use and depression specifically is a bit murkier, with some studies suggesting that increased social media use leads to increased rates of depression, while others found that social media interactions can be used as a way to combat some of the symptoms of depression. The correlation between social media and anxiety is clearer though: substantial research over the past several years has found that more screen time leads to more anxiety. Teens themselves have reported they feel addicted to social media, saying that there’s an intense separation anxiety when they’re away from their phones or computers for too long.
At the same time, when used properly and with adequate boundaries, social media can serve as a tool of connection. It’s even been studied as a weapon against pandemic-related isolation. “Social media, in many ways, is a double edged sword,” said Geanne Weaver-Hepler, Director of Outreach at Charlie Health. “Obviously we have to be very aware of the line between healthy and unhealthy. When social media is used as a way to participate in the community or activism, to connect with friends, to learn a new hobby...those are all very positive ways to engage with social media. The pandemic has made it really hard for young people to feel connected with one another, so I always suggest to parents that they try to remember the nuances of their kids’ being on their phones more than usual.”
So what can parents and loved ones do?
A metric that Charlie Health clinicians often rely upon for certain diagnostic purposes is functionality. In short: if the use of social media is impeding your ability to complete everyday tasks or is making you feel more depressed or anxious than usual, it’s time to take a break and reevaluate your relationship to technology. “When you get to the point where you’re spending multiple hours a day scrolling through Instagram or you’re avoiding basic responsibilities or events so that you can stay online...that’s not a healthy dynamic.”
As we’ve previously discussed on the blog, here are some questions you can ask yourself or the young people in your life about social media usage:
- How much time per day is dedicated to social media?
- How are the decisions being made about your/their life influenced by social media?
- Have you/they been putting off responsibilities to be on social media?
- Why do you/they choose to engage with social media?
When used with proper boundaries, social media can absolutely provide a net benefit for those struggling with mental health. But it’s vitally important to remain vigilant about those same boundaries, be it through parental guidance or self-reflection or work with a therapist. If you suspect you or someone you love is suffering because of social media, or has developed an addiction to the technology, reach out for help. Acknowledging that additional support is needed takes courage, but it's the first step of the healing journey.
Charlie Health’s team of expert, licensed clinicians is here to support teens, young adults, and families struggling with mental health. You are not alone. Charlie Health is here to listen to your needs and find a personalized treatment program that is right for you.