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The Digital Age: Teenagers, Social Media, and Mental Health


There was a time when phones were useful only for making calls, and televisions were allowed only for a few minutes a day. Times have changed now; the young generation, especially the teens, can’t even go to the washroom without their phones. And that says a lot about the effects of the digital age on them. 

According to a 2018 Pew research survey, around  95% of teens have a smartphone or at least have access to one, and around 45% of teens are present online constantly. 

So, as parents, what can be done? 

Deny them access to digital life of any sort, and you will be “destroying” their social life. Limit the access to a minimum, and you will also limit their ability to develop life skills that will help them further in life. Give them access to digital life the way they want, and then you will end up obsessively tracking them, making sure they don’t end up doing or watching something you don’t want them to do. 

Managing and controlling technology when it comes to your teens can feel like an impossible situation. But it’s not. With a proper understanding of the impacts of social media and digital life, creating healthy boundaries and relationships with your kids, and helping them manage their relationship with technology, things can be better. Let us talk about all of it in detail.

The Impact of Social Media on Teenagers’ Lives 

As per the reports by the Paw Research Centre, YouTube tops the most-used media platform by 95% of teens, followed by TikTok (67%), Instagram, and Snapchat, which are again used by around 6 out of 10 teens. After all those mainstream platforms comes Facebook with a share of 32%, along with other smaller platforms like Reddit, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Twitch, etc. The numbers are huge and worrying.

With teens becoming the primary users of platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, the question of the hour arises – what kind of impact does it have on their self-esteem, identity, body image, and other related issues? 

Negative Impact of Social Media on Teens

Risk of Extreme Weight Loss Behaviors 

As per a study by Lewallen and Behm-Morawitz, teen girls and young women who follow fitness boards on Pinterest (or more like Thinterest) or other social media apps were more likely to follow weight loss programs like crash dieting. This process can further lead to the beginning of self-reflection, which may bring up extreme weight loss behaviors in them. 

It cannot be stated enough that people want to look their best on their social media profiles. That is where the bad impact of social media on teenagers takes place. And, thanks to applications like Photoshop, people can alter their bodies, make themselves look thinner and in shape, remove blemishes, and make their skin look as flawless as possible. 

Depression and Anxiety 

The effects of social media on teenagers don’t just stop with body issues. Teens who spend an excessive amount of time on cell phones were also linked with depressive symptoms. Additionally, the ones that just use them passively, like viewing other photographs, also reported a decline in life satisfaction.

Illusion of Happiness 

Another older study impact of social media on undergraduate college students said the more they used social media, the stronger they felt about how happy others were. But when they went on outings with their friends, they didn’t feel the same. 

Because of their oversharing and impulsive natures, experts suggest it is better not to share intimate or highly personal photos. This can lead to the risk of teens being bullied, harassed, or even blackmailed.

Positive Impact of Social Media on Teens 

On the plus side, there are specific positive effects of social media for teens, too. 

Source of Positive Support 

Platforms like Reddit, Instagram, etc., have been a lifesaver for those who felt isolated due to whatever reasons, be it their body, chronic illnesses or injuries, identity, and especially the LGBTQ teens. 

Social media provides them with valuable support and allows them to connect with like-minded people and create communities where they can openly share their feelings.

Space for Self-Expression

Teens have also been using it for self-entertainment, expression, and knowledge. They feel like they can openly present their opinions, making them feel validated and secure with who they are. Whether you enjoy singing, drawing, acting, makeup, or whatnot, you can showcase your art on social media and share it with everyone worldwide.

Tool for Gathering Information 

It also exposes them to the events happening around them and connects them with their favorite authors, actors, and other celebs. Teens can even learn about different issues and their impact on themselves and their loved ones. Thus expanding their knowledge base and teaching them about various aspects.

Mental Health Stressors Linked to Social Media

The surge in social media usage among the youth raises a red flag, with studies consistently highlighting a troubling link between increased screen time and mental health challenges. From the clouds of depression and anxiety to the disruptive storms of sleep disturbances and low self-esteem, adolescents find themselves going through dangerous waters in the digital world. The risk is more for girls and queer teens and those already grappling with pre-existing mental health issues, creating a vulnerable demographic at the forefront of this digital maelstrom. Let us discuss the mental health challenges linked to social media that teen parents and teens themselves face: 

The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) phenomenon is a force fueled by social media’s constant stream of updates, photos, and stories. A study in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions unveils the sinister repercussions of FOMO, revealing its association with poorer sleep quality and decreased overall well-being. The relentless nature of this online cascade heightens feelings of dissatisfaction, leading adolescents to question the richness of their own lives in comparison to the curated lives of their peers.

Body Image and Self-Esteem Struggles

Social media’s emphasis on physical appearance becomes a distorted mirror reflecting warped images of body ideals, contributing to the pervasive struggle with body image and self-esteem. The International Journal of Eating Disorders reveals the unsettling truth that exposure to thin-ideal images on social media is intricately linked to increased body dissatisfaction and a passionate drive for thinness. For young individuals still going through the path of self-discovery, these negative effects on body image wield a deep impact on their mental health, adding layers of complexity to their formative years.

Online Exposure to Hate-Based Content

Nearly two-thirds of adolescents report frequent exposure to hate-based content on social media platforms. The prevalence of such content contributes to a toxic online environment, promoting negativity and potentially worsening mental health struggles among vulnerable individuals. This exposure also contributes to the creation of a virtual world where hate speech, discrimination, and harmful ideologies can take place openly.

Cyberbullying and Depression

Extensive research highlights a direct correlation between social media cyberbullying and heightened levels of depression among young people. 

Teen girls and LGBTQ youth are particularly susceptible to online harassment, worsening the negative emotional impact. For teen girls, societal expectations regarding appearance and behavior converge with the toxic beauty standards perpetuated on social media, exacerbating feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. LGBTQ youth, often already facing societal stigmatization, become targets for online harassment, further isolating them in their struggles.

Addressing Social Media-Related Stressors

Addressing FOMO 

Social media’s presence in modern culture makes it nearly impossible for parents to completely shield their children from its influence. However, proactive parental involvement can mitigate potential issues. Educating oneself on social media platforms, understanding the signs of problematic usage, and knowing where to seek help are crucial steps. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests a Family Media Use Plan, emphasizing keeping screens out of bedrooms, screen-free mealtime, limiting entertainment screen time, and restricting age-inappropriate content.

Encouraging healthy offline relationships and activities with your teens can also enhance overall life satisfaction. Techniques like self-talk, managing expectations, and using offline distractions are other techniques to combat FOMO. 

Addressing Cyberbullying

Addressing teen cyberbullying on social media requires a supportive approach. If your child hesitates to share their experience, create an open dialogue and assure them of your support. Emphasize the importance of not responding aggressively, block the individual, and walk away from online negativity. 

Document instances of bullying, urging your child to keep evidence through printouts or screenshots. Involve parents, schools, and friends in addressing the issue. Talk to the bully’s parents if they go to the same school, and explore the institution’s online bullying policy. 

If needed, involve law enforcement, especially if threats are involved. Educate your child on adjusting privacy settings, deleting offensive content, and seeking support from friends and family. 

Addressing Body Image and Self-Esteem Issues

Research, such as Goldfield’s study, indicates that reducing social media use can positively impact how individuals perceive their overall appearance and body weight. 

Initiatives to limit social media exposure can be incorporated into educational programs, encouraging teens to be mindful of online interactions. Here’s what parents and educators can do: –

  • Engage in open conversations with teens about unhealthy body images prevalent in media. 
  • Actively listening to teens and creating a safe space for them to express their feelings about media images is crucial. If body image concerns arise, seeking support from healthcare providers or therapists can provide professional guidance.
  • Educating teens about marketing tactics used to perpetuate unrealistic beauty ideals is also essential. Discussing the manipulative strategies employed by advertisers helps teens become more discerning consumers.

Addressing Online Exposure to Hate-Based Content 

Parents and educators should educate young individuals about the legal consequences of hate speech, emphasizing that advocating hatred against specific groups is a crime in many jurisdictions. Recognizing that youth, especially boys aged 12-17, are more susceptible to committing hate crimes, it’s crucial to address underlying issues such as the search for identity and belonging.

  • Initiatives promoting empathy, emotional literacy, and respect for diversity can be integrated into educational programs to form a positive online environment.
  • Promoting digital literacy and critical thinking skills helps teens feel the credibility of online content, empowering them to challenge and reject hate-motivated messages. 
  • Make them learn about the reporting mechanisms for hate speech, coupled with support services. 
  • Ultimately, parents should actively participate in their children’s online experiences, allowing an environment where open communication and education become powerful tools against the proliferation of hate-based content on the internet.

Building a Healthy Relationship with Social Media

Understanding and Addressing Emotions

Instead of solely focusing on the amount of time spent online, inquire about your teen’s feelings while using social media. Here’s what you can do: –

  • Open-Ended Communication: Initiate conversations with open-ended questions that encourage your teen to share their feelings about social media. Instead of asking yes-or-no questions, inquire about specific experiences and emotions they may have encountered online.
  • Identify Pressure Points: Explore whether your teen feels pressured or experiences insecurities while using social media. Address specific situations that may contribute to negative emotions, such as comparison, online conflicts, or exposure to unrealistic standards.
  • Provide Guidance, Not Criticism: When discussing emotional responses, focus on providing guidance rather than criticizing their online activities. 
  • Educate About Digital Well-Being: Help your teen understand the impact of social media on mental health. Discuss the importance of taking breaks, setting boundaries, and recognizing when online activities may be negatively affecting their well-being.

Respecting Privacy with Exceptions:

  • Acknowledge Identity Exploration: Recognize that social media is a space for teens to explore and express their identity. Understand the significance of online interactions in shaping their self-perception and connections with peers.
  • Establish Trust: Communicate that you respect their need for privacy. Establish trust by being open about your intentions and discussing the importance of ensuring their safety and well-being.
  • Define Safety Concerns: Identify specific safety concerns that may warrant exceptions to privacy. These concerns could include online interactions with strangers, exposure to inappropriate content, or signs of potential harm to themselves or others.
  • Involve Them in Decision-Making:  Whenever possible, involve your teen in decisions related to online safety. Collaboratively set guidelines and rules that both prioritize their privacy and address safety concerns, enabling a sense of freedom.

Educate About Staying Safe:

  • Guidance on Personal Information: Educate your teen about the importance of safeguarding personal information online. Discuss the risks associated with sharing details like location, contact information, and school/work details. 
  • Preventing Cyberbullying: Highlight responsible behavior as a preventive measure against cyberbullying. Discuss the impact hurtful comments or actions can have on others and the importance of treating online interactions with the same respect as face-to-face interactions. Motivate your teen to report any cyberbullying and make them aware of available reporting mechanisms.

Take an Interest in Their Online Lives:

  • Active Engagement: Demonstrate a genuine interest in your teen’s online activities. Ask open-ended questions about their favorite platforms, online friends, and the content they engage with. Actively listen to their responses, showing that you value their experiences in the digital world.
  • Curiosity and Questions: Be curious about their social media use without being judgmental. Inquire about the type of content they find interesting, the accounts they follow, and any challenges they may encounter. 

Avoid Demonizing Social Media:

  • Encouraging Responsible Usage: Focus on responsible usage rather than demonizing social media. Help your teen develop critical thinking skills to navigate online content. Discuss the importance of balance, setting limits, and being mindful of the time spent online.
  • Supporting Mental Health: Recognize the role social media plays in supporting mental health, especially during challenging times. Discuss how online connections can provide emotional support and encourage positive interactions. 

Resources and Tools

Meditation

In the digital age, where teens face heightened stress and anxiety, meditation emerges as a vital tool for safeguarding their mental health. Regular meditation practices help reduce stress levels, enhance cognitive function, and foster emotional intelligence. 

Studies indicate that teens who engage in mindfulness experience increased mental clarity and a decrease in destructive behaviors. Importantly, meditation positively influences the developing teenage brain, increasing thickness in areas associated with well-being and self-regulation.

Apps and Digital Resources 

Teens suffering from mental health challenges can access support through a range of apps providing immediate help, ongoing support, and positive focus. These tools serve as valuable aids during distress, offering strategies to manage self-harm impulses or creating virtual hope boxes for storing comforting images and activities.

Teens can also use apps for positive reflection, engaging in daily writing about three positive experiences, or employing mood tracking to identify emotional challenges. While these apps are not substitutes for professional help or parental support, they serve as supplementary tools empowering teens to navigate difficult moments and foster mental well-being within the digital landscape

Beyond apps, various communities, and Adolescent Mental Health Service centers contribute to mental health resources by offering interactive games, breathing techniques, forums, downloadable materials, books, website links, and videos. 

You can also opt for our highly recommended The Attitude Advantage Program (TAAP). Here, you can be a part of a variety of daily activities, sessions with teen experts, parent courses, and videos that can help you help you build a better relationship with your kid and make them learn the importance of face-to-face interactions and real relationships that exist outside the digital world. 

In a world where digital media is deeply immersed in teens’ lives, understanding the complex interplay of technology, social media, and teen mental health is a must. By following an approach that combines awareness communication with the help of external resources and tools, parents and educators can guide teens toward a healthier relationship with technology and make them strong and aware enough to face the complexities of the digital world.

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