Is social media a blessing for teens, a curse for parents or perhaps a bit of both? We explore how social media affects teenage mental health and other key aspects of this ongoing dilemma.
It’s no secret social media has become an essential part of the average teenager’s everyday life. Whether it’s sharing photos on Instagram, messaging friends on Snapchat or choreographing a dance on TikTok, teens are enveloped by the online world of social media.
But is social media good for teenagers? Can the potential benefits balance out the well-documented problems? We sought out Associate Professor Alina Morawska, Centre Director at the Parenting and Family Support Centre in the UQ School of Psychology, to learn how social media affects teenagers and what parents can do to help.
How does social media affect teenagers’ mental health?
Alina says teenagers on social media have “increased exposure to harm, social isolation, depression, anxiety and cyber-bullying.”
The impact of social media on teenagers can be significant. It’s not just a case of losing sleep and getting distracted during the day – social media can have far-reaching negative effects on a teen’s mental health.
As the adolescent brain is still developing, it’s more vulnerable to time online. And since teens can sometimes struggle to self-regulate their screen time, their exposure – and the risk of harm – increases. As a result, teen social media use often correlates with:
“Adolescence is a time when peer relationships are particularly important, so there may very well be pressure from the peer circle to be online,” says Alina.
“If you’re not online, you’re missing out – you’re not part of the group.”
UQ psychology students learn about a wide range of factors that can influence a person’s mental health.
Depression and anxiety
While researchers have only just started to uncover the link between depression and social media, what they’ve discovered suggests increased social media use can intensify the symptoms of depression. Teens suffering from this will usually display an increase in loneliness and a decrease in social activities.
Another component is anxiety. Many teens are deeply devoted to their social media accounts and content, which leads them to feel an immense amount of stress – to respond quickly, to post perfect photos with witty captions and, of course, to receive lots of likes. Add cyber-bullying and other offensive online behaviours to the mix, and it’s easy to see why social media causes a great deal of anxiety for teens.
Another way social media affects teenager’s mental health is by exacerbating any existing problems with low self-esteem. Teens are particularly vulnerable to feeling down about themselves and their bodies when they follow certain celebrities and influencers online. They’re getting content, feedback and pressure from many more people than they ever would encounter in the real world. This makes it easy for teens to play a dangerous comparison game when they see people’s curated feed online and think they are happier, better-looking or more well-off than they are. This can be detrimental to their mental health.
How long does the average teenager spend on social media?
According to Australian statistics from Roy Morgan:
girls aged 14-24 spend 822 minutes on social media each week (about 2 hours a day)
boys aged 14-24 spend 528 minutes a week (just over an hour each day).
The average teenager spends about 1.6 hours on social media every day.
Research carried out by the Australian government’s eSafety Commissioner revealed that in a 6-month period in 2020, 4 in 10 teens (44% of those surveyed) had a negative experience online. This included being contacted by a stranger, sent inappropriate content or being deliberately excluded from events or social groups.
Despite this, however, teens still spent an average of 14.4 hours a week online and used an average of 4 social media services regularly.
Alina shed some light on why social media is such an addictive vice for young minds.
“Social networking is a way of being and interacting with others and the world these days,” she says.
“Humans are inherently social, so our use of social media is consistent with this. However, because of the way social media is structured – always on, always available – it can be difficult to switch off from it.”
Should parents limit their teenager’s use of social media?
There are several cases where it might be suitable for a parent to limit their teenager’s social media use.
The first reason is addiction. If social media takes up a large proportion of their day, affects their sleep and schoolwork, and they don’t have the self-regulation to limit their use themselves, it may be time to step in and implement some boundaries.
The second reason is if you have reason to believe your teenager is engaging in inappropriate and irresponsible online behaviour or if they are exposed to it. Teens shouldn’t have the privilege of their own social media accounts unless they’re able to conduct themselves responsibly online.
In most cases, though, banning or limiting social media use won’t address the underlying issues and may only lead to resentment. So, we asked Alina how else parents can help their teens with their social media usage.
“It’s important for parents to consider their own relationship with social media and what they are modelling to their child,” says Alina.
“Consider setting some household rules around social media and devices for everyone, such as no devices at the dinner table.”
“Encourage discussions about the pros and cons of media use.”
Is social media good for teenagers?
While there are many downfalls of social media, there are benefits for teenagers as well. Social media platforms allow teens to:
create online identities and be part of a community
build social networks and communicate with others, which can provide them with support
find entertainment, distraction, humour, education and information about social movements and human rights issues.
There are many positives associated with social media, and it’s important for teens to develop social media savviness to prepare them for adulthood where, undeniably, social media remains a major part of daily life. You can work with your teen to help them find the right balance between social media and their mental health. And if you’re worried your teen’s social media use is interfering with their schoolwork, consider these helpful study apps.