Are the Kids Alright?: Social Media and Youth Mental Health

(May 19, 2023) It’s probably not news to anyone that social media can have an impact on mental health, especially for teens and children. Concern over the effects social media may have on youth mental health is so high that some school districts have begun suing social media companies. Seattle’s public school district started the charge earlier this year and others have followed suit, including Pittsburgh public schools. But what exactly are the effects of social media on youth mental health, and what can be done – on a smaller scale than massive lawsuits – to help mitigate them?

The Mayo Clinic reports that “12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S… who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems,” according to a 2019 study. They also show that social comparison is a major problem. When youth see others’ social media posts, whether those of their peers or strangers and “influencers,” they start to view their own lives as unsatisfactory. The Mayo Clinic also cited various studies showing links between higher levels of social media use among teens and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Cyberbullying can also have a massive impact on mental health. The Pew Research Center reports that 46% of teens have experienced cyberbullying (as of 2022). Teens most often experience cyberbullying through name calling, though some have received physical threats or had explicit images shared without their consent. A kid’s race, sexuality, or socioeconomic status can impact the ways and extent to which they experience cyberbullying. The same Pew study showed that Black and Hispanic teens were far more likely to think that they were harassed online because of their race. Additionally, Mental Health America (MHA) reports that 36% of LGBTQ+ teens reported experiencing cyberbullying, as opposed to only 20% of heterosexual teens. Another report from MHA said that teens from lower-income families were more likely to have negative online experiences that lead to negative interactions offline.

It is crucial to highlight that social media isn’t all bad, though. Teens have reported feeling a sense of connectedness from social media, both to the world as a whole and to distant friends. Some teens even reported that the social media experience they had cultivated for themselves was supportive of their mental health. Social media serves as a positive, helpful escape for some, and for others a source of information that they may not know how to get elsewhere in their lives. For teens who feel isolated – whether because of social exclusion, sexuality, disability, chronic illness or a myriad of other reasons – the support, camaraderie, and friendship they can find through social media is invaluable.

Personally, I have a complicated perspective on all of this. I was born in 1998. Whether I’m a young Millennial or old Gen Z (the generation of today’s teens) depends on who you ask. I didn’t have a smart phone until I was sixteen, no Instagram until senior year of high school, and I only got TikTok when the pandemic left me with a lot of time for scrolling. I didn’t experience this kind of cyberbullying as a kid, but I can see it now. It’s implicit in some of the videos I see, or explicit in the comment sections. I’m just old enough to be a few steps removed from it, but just young enough to exist on the edges and catch a glimpse.

Clearly, there are pros and cons to youth having access to social media, and trusted adults need to help them mitigate the negative aspects. As with so many things, it really comes down to caring adults being present in kids’ lives, including their digital ones. Parents and other adults can help by asking questions about youth’s experiences with social media, not in a negative or accusatory manner, but just by simply taking an interest. Building trust around the subject will make it more likely for kids to reach out if they do have a bad experience. Grown-ups can also model healthy social media usage, limiting one’s own screen time and not engaging in negative online spaces . Both the Mayo Clinic and MHA have suggestions of how adults can help, as do the American Psychological Association and this article from NPR.

Laura Condon, Allies for Children Project Coordinator